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Zen and the Art of Rationality

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 04:36AM

Followup toEffortless Technique

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.  Successfully or not, I aspire to clearly set forth the reasoning, antecedent assumptions, and pragmatic use of my conclusions.  Successfully or not, I aspire to cut my proposals into modular pieces, so that a user can reject one mistake without destroying the whole.  This standard of writing is inherited from the ancient traditions of technical thinking, not the ancient traditions of Zen.

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.  My goals are not the goals of Buddha or Lao Tse.  Feeling Rational suggested that emotions should follow from beliefs but not beliefs follow from emotions:  the ideal is to free yourself of all attachment to preferred conclusions about reality, arrive at your beliefs of fact by weighing the evidence without prejudice, and then feel fully whatever emotions follow from these beliefs-of-fact.  In stereotypical Eastern philosophy, you are supposed to free yourself of all attachments, not just attachment to beliefs-of-fact apart from evidence; you are supposed to relinquish all desire.  Yes, I know it's more complicated than that - but still, their goals are not mine.

And yet it oftimes seems to me that my thoughts are expressed in conceptual language that owes a great deal to the inspiration of Eastern philosophy.  "Free yourself of attachments to thinking that the universe is one way or another:  Arrive at your picture of the world without prejudice, and then feel fully whichever feelings arise from this picture.  Let your emotions flow from your beliefs, not the other way around."  It's not a Buddhist conclusion, but the language owes a nod in the direction of Buddhism.  Even if a Buddhist teacher would vehemently disagree, they might still grasp immediately what was being proposed.  Grasp it more clearly, perhaps, than an old-school (i.e. pre-Bayesian) Western rationalist.

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.  And this is well, because I can't stand people who try to pass off their ideas as ancient wisdom.  As if that were a recommendation!  The fifth-century Chinese philosopher Xiaoguang Li observed that ancient civilizations are revered, and yet ancient civilizations are not wise like venerable human elders are wise.  A civilization further back in time is younger, not older.  The current civilization is always the senior, because the present enjoys a longer history than the past.  Incidentally, does it change your opinion if I tell you that Xiaoguang "Mike" Li is actually a friend of mine who lives in the Bay Area?

So be it far from me to spray-paint my work with a patina of venerability.  And yet in too many ways to list here, my work owes a nod in the direction of Buddhism, Taoism, Zen - and even Bushido.  Yes, Bushido! See e.g. the Musashi quotes in the Twelve Virtues of Rationality. Whatever their other flaws, samurai had a deep grasp of the virtue of perfectionism as a life-principle.  To Westerners, "perfectionism" refers to something that seems like work, makes people unhappy, and causes software to ship late.

Of the virtue of curiosity, I said:  "A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth."  Here is the conceptual language - but not the propositional statements - of Lao Tse admonishing, "Stop talking about morality and righteousness, and people will regain the love of their fellows."  People are not naturally rational - but you sure can trip over your own feet by thinking too much about "rationality" instead of paying attention to the obvious evidence.  Learned virtues are powerful but dangerous; they have many degrees of freedom for error.

Western religions demand submission to God, bended knee and bowed neck.  Many Christian saints achieved their canonization by going to great lengths of voluntary suffering.  You obey God's precepts out of dutiful morality and reverence, on penalty of judgment and damnation.  Such concepts have contaminated Eastern street religions as well, of course.  But so far as Eastern religious philosophy is concerned, one speaks of harmony with the Tao, rather than submitting to the Tao.

When I ask myself whether rationality seems more like submitting to the commands of Bayes, or moving in harmony with the Bayes, the latter seems far closer to the mark.  By placing yourself in correspondence with the Bayes, you wield the power of the Bayes.  If you misstep in the dance (accidentally or deliberately), there is no judge who damns you, or any divine watcher disappointed in you:  You have failed yourself.  The laws of probability theory still govern you, entirely indifferent to your submission or defiance.  The consequences of your disharmony will occur to you according to the natural order of things: the Bayes does not condemn you for your disobedience, but reality will not go according to your hopeful plans.  Neither guilt nor repentance will save you, since the Bayes cares nothing for your allegiance.  Worshipping the Bayes will not gain its favor, for the Bayes has no ego-desire to demand your praise.  Probability theory is there to be used, not believed-in.  There is no ancient Taoist manuscript that agrees with such Bayesianity, but the language...

The axioms of Bayesian probability theory make no mention of clothing, and therefore a valid derivation is valid whether you wear a lab coat or a clown suit.  The Bayes makes no mention of solemnity or silliness, and therefore lecture on rationality is just the same whether spoken in deep portentous tones or a high squeaky voice from inhaling helium.  Understanding what probability theory constrains and does not constrain, we are free to be spontaneous in all other respects.  This purity and freedom is preached in no Buddhist tract, but there is something of an Eastern aesthetic about it - and a mathematical aesthetic also, but math knows no East or West, and is simply math.

Miyamoto Musashi said:

"The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. 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."

Likewise in rationality.  Every step cuts through to the truth in the same movement.  Every step carries the map through to reflect the territory.  If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.  Whether you wear a lab coat or a clown suit, however much it might naively seem to associate with science, does not affect whether you cut through to the correct answer.  (This is why I'm not afraid to borrow the language of Taoism, or verse-form when the whim takes me; mere style makes no difference to probability theory.)  You might think that such focus, such purposefulness, is more Western than Eastern - but where is the equivalent declaration of Musashi's by a Western philosopher?

Lest I seem to give the East too much praise, I note a well-known truism to the effect that Westerners overestimate the average quality of Eastern philosophy because only the good stuff gets imported.  Buddhism seems "atheistic" because you don't read about the ten thousand minor deities unabashedly worshipped on the street.  Such selectivity is right and proper, and I make no apology for it.  I am not trying for authenticity, that is not my purpose.

Likewise, I don't spend much time pondering my "Western influences" because they are as natural to me as breathing, as unseen to me as air.  If I had grown up in Taiwan, my writing would probably sound far more Buddhist and Taoistic; and perhaps I would talk of the inspiration (though not advice) I had received from reading some Taiwanese book about Greek philosophers, and how I often felt closer to Judaism than my forgotten childhood Buddhism.

Nonetheless, I think it a wise thing for an aspiring rationalist to read at least one book of Buddhist or Taoist or Zen philosophy - preferably a book in its original English, recommended to you by some mathematician or programmer or scientist.

Comments (31)

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Comment author: Michael_Rooney 24 December 2007 06:42:13AM 15 points [-]

but where is the equivalent statement by a (seventeenth-century) Western philosopher?

Descartes, ca. 1628:

Rules for the Direction of the Mind

Rule One The aim of our studies should be to direct the mind with a view to forming true and sound judgments about whatever comes before it.

[...] We have reason to propose this as our very first rule, since what makes us stray from the correct way of seeking the truth is chiefly our ignoring the general end of universal wisdom and directing our studies towards some particular ends. I do not mean vile and despicable ends such as empty glory or base gain [...] I have in mind, rather, respectable and commendable ends, for these are often more subtly misleading....

[...]

We ought to read the writings of the ancients, for it is of great advantage to be able to make use of the labors of so many men. We should do so both in order to learn what truths have already been discovered and also to be informed about the points which remain to be worked out in the various disciplines. But at the same time there is a considerable danger that if we study these works too closely traces of their errors will infect us and cling to us against our will and despite our precautions.

Etc.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 07:01:01AM 2 points [-]

Many Western philosophers have claimed that such-and-such is the overarching goal. I am not asking for someone waving truth as a banner, there have been many such. I am asking for the equivalent of Musashi's focus and purposefulness: "Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement... If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him."

This idea of carrying through in the same movement, is what I would identify as the key. Descartes would simply seem to be calling for his goal of truth to take precedence over other goals, even commendable ones. Precedence is not the same as cutting through in the same movement.

And let me relax the seventeenth-century constraint - I'll ask for any Western philosopher not inspired by Eastern philosophy.

Comment author: Chris 24 December 2007 11:47:38AM 1 point [-]

It's illuminating to see this post next to the one on procrastination. I doubt Musashi would insist on delaying your sword stroke until you were absolutely sure you would cut at the same time as parry. His perfectionism concerns the initial state of mind, not the outcome. Raising the prior, in other words.

Comment author: Unknown 24 December 2007 01:26:35PM 16 points [-]

The reason ancient wisdom is praised is not because its authors lived in the past and have a shorter history. The reason is that it was sufficiently meaningful to be remembered until the present, i.e. for a long period of history. Something which is affirmed by someone in the present has not yet passed this test, although it may well succeed in the future.

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 24 December 2007 01:45:15PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, I think most psychologists would probably say perfectionism is a bad thing. What would your response to them be?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 07 September 2011 05:19:46PM 3 points [-]

Typical perfectionist is irrational, and is content with being irrational. Their perfectionism then gives more fuel to their irrationality. Which is bad.

Even perfectionist rational in one area of life can be irrational in other areas. Now their perfectionism has both good and bad results.

Problem is, is perfectionism bad per se? Or is irrationality bad, and perfectionism is just an amplifier of any human trait, both good and bad? Now, because people are usually pretty irrational, perfectionism is widely known as irrationality amplifier. But for a person who tries to be rational, perfectionism could help them.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 December 2007 02:10:00PM 2 points [-]

Most psychologists are idiots.

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.

Or recent Eastern wisdom... or ancient Western wisdom...

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 24 December 2007 03:43:51PM 3 points [-]

Newton and Darwin were perfectionists, and again most psychologists are idiots.

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 24 December 2007 03:48:55PM 2 points [-]

What do you know about psychology that makes you superior to psychologists in general? Chances are experts know more about their field than you do.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 24 December 2007 06:17:39PM 3 points [-]

"I think most psychologists would probably say..."

Why should Eliezer need to reply to the psychologists, when they're not saying anything - it's you who are saying something you think psychologists would maybe say?

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 24 December 2007 06:58:01PM 1 point [-]

Kaj, I'm not asking him to reply to psychologists. Do you believe psychologists generally approve of perfectionism, or are indifferent to it?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 December 2007 07:26:59PM 11 points [-]

Kenny, I would reply issho kenmei monogoto o suru koto.

"In important matters, a 'strong' effort usually results in only mediocre results. [EY: This is so true.] Whenever we are attempting anything truly worthwhile our effort must be as if our life is at stake, just as if we were under a physical attack!" -- "Flashing Steel: Mastering Eishin-Ryu Swordsmanship" by Masayuki Shimabukuro and Leonard J. Pellman

You won't get anywhere by making a "strong" effort to be rational.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 December 2007 08:14:57PM 1 point [-]

What do you know about psychology that makes you superior to psychologists in general? Chances are experts know more about their field than you do.

Psychologists ARE my field. Chances are I know more about them than they do.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 24 December 2007 10:36:40PM 0 points [-]

Kenny, without consulting one or looking up the topic, I believe that psychologists consider there to be many varieties of perfectionism, some of it good, some of it bad.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 25 December 2007 12:18:37AM 5 points [-]

poke said:

Rationality is essentially Greek mysticism

I think you're obsessing over lineage here. If you allow your map to be controlled by the territory, it shouldn't matter what the map looked like 2,500 years ago.

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 26 December 2007 02:25:29PM 2 points [-]

Kaj, looking into it more, I think you're closer to the mark than me overall.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)

That said, I'm unclear if Eliezer's attitude is healthy or not by these standards. "All-or-nothing-thinking" associated with perfectionism seems to be considered negative, if one can trust the wikipedia article.

Comment author: Baruta07 29 December 2012 07:34:48PM 0 points [-]

There are certain parts of perfectionism that are good but I think that the word brings up negative connotations. the definition that you have given for perfectionism (taken from Wikipedia) is "Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism drives individuals to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal, and their adaptive perfectionism can sometimes motivate them to reach their goals. In the end, they derive pleasure from doing so. When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression."

Perfectionism is good in the fact that it rewards perfect creations and projects and negative in the fact that it can be self destroying, One of the defining traits of Perfectionism is that it increases the impact of criticism both from within and without Primarily on the subject in question and often goes overboard in the pursuit of perfection creating a depressive spiral. What benefit comes from Perfectionism is based upon the strength and resilience of one's mind and what outside help one has. Perfectionism is really a complex subject and the perception of it as a bad thing comes from the archetypal representation of the subject: That of a controlling figure who hates to be criticized.

Comment author: Caledonian2 26 December 2007 02:33:43PM 1 point [-]

The people who reject "all-or-nothing-thinking" in all cases are idiots.

They're also self-contradictory, but pointing that fact out to idiots is rarely fruitful.

Comment author: Sean2 03 August 2008 02:06:35AM -1 points [-]

You had said, in quotes: "Free yourself of attachments to thinking that the universe is one way or another: Arrive at your picture of the world without prejudice, and then feel fully whichever feelings arise from this picture. Let your emotions flow from your beliefs, not the other way around."

At some level of thought, I could be concerned about the interaction of belief and limited knowledge. I would ask myself, "Is my own knowledge enough that my consequent beliefs are in match with reality?"

I suppose that one must accept that one's knowledge is limited. I hesitate to neglect to say that one should, inasmuch, recognize this as it being the case for every person whom one interacts with. Now, the conceit of people, in face of that, is another thing.

I have seen it happen, time and again, when some new facet of knowledge has developed, to me, such that serves to make a rational explanation about a previous failure. I cannot mistake it, now, that I have developed an emotional attachment about knowledge. If this is not necessarily rational, but I can only hope that it works itself out in time. My job does not permit much of a philosophical look on life -- I am in the Army.

I think that I appreciate what you say about not making belief as to be based on emotion.

Without holding first regard for emotion, then, I hope that rationality can be warm enough company.

Looking for something on which to turn my mind to a more effectual end, this may have been what I was looking for.

Comment author: Harry_H 24 October 2008 11:37:13PM 1 point [-]

"Nonetheless, I think it a wise thing for an aspiring rationalist to read at least one book of Buddhist or Taoist or Zen philosophy - preferably a book in its original English, recommended to you by some mathematician or programmer or scientist."

Can you mention a book that you recommend or was recommended to you by a mathematician or programmer or scientist?

Comment author: fiddlemath 22 May 2010 04:33:07AM *  4 points [-]

I heartily recommend Smullyan's "The Tao is Silent." Also, Smullyan's Planet Without Laughter.

I am a mathematician or programmer or scientist, though I cannot tell which.

Comment author: endoself 07 December 2011 06:00:59AM *  2 points [-]

There's also a chance he was implying Gödel, Escher, Bach; he has recommended it very strongly in a number of other places.

EDIT: The Tao is silent seems to fit better, but I'm leaving this comment up in case it gets someone to read GEB.

Comment author: pragmatist 07 December 2011 06:12:27AM 0 points [-]

I'm not a mathematician or a programmer or a scientist, but I really enjoyed Raymond Smullyan's The Tao is Silent.

Comment author: simplicio 22 May 2010 03:25:24AM 11 points [-]

A civilization further back in time is younger, not older. The current civilization is always the senior, because the present enjoys a longer history than the past.

I almost yelled out when I read this. Somehow this never occurred to me(!), which in retrospect is sort of like having it never occur to you that the sun might be bright. I guess the "venerable ancestors" meme is pretty deeply ingrained, wow.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 20 January 2012 08:51:23AM 0 points [-]

I applaud your fourth paragraph.

Comment author: timujin 11 February 2013 08:18:50PM 4 points [-]

Nonetheless, I think it a wise thing for an aspiring rationalist to read at least one book of Buddhist or Taoist or Zen philosophy - preferably a book in its original English, recommended to you by some mathematician or programmer or scientist.

Eliezer, you're a mathematician and programmer and scientist. Recommend a book on the subject, please.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 12 February 2013 02:08:43AM 0 points [-]

Another angle: any method you use to get at the truth is only a method. If something better than Bayes is developed, then there's no obligation of loyalty to Bayes.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 12 February 2013 02:54:58AM 3 points [-]

If I understand the math correctly (this is always in doubt) — In order to be better than Bayes, it would have to be not equivalent to Bayes; and therefore to violate one of Cox's postulates.

That said, it's not hard to imagine an implementation of Bayes substantially better than explicit, conscious, language-based, numerical reasoning augmented with kludgy workarounds for discovered biases.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2014 08:40:51AM -1 points [-]

Agreed, no one would mistake your writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.

"You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest."

Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen)

Zen Master Dogen 1200-1253

51st Patriarch