Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
At the Less Wrong Meetup in Columbus, OH over the last couple of months, we discussed optimizing the Twelve Virtues of Rationality. In doing so, we were inspired by what Eliezer himself said in the essay:
Perhaps your conception of rationality is that it is rational to believe the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but rationality is to believe the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to discover your mistake.
So we first decided on the purpose of optimizing, and settled on yielding virtues that would be most impactful and effective for motivating people to become more rational, in other words optimizations that would produce the most utilons and hedons for the purpose of winning. There were a bunch of different suggestions. I tried to apply them to myself over the last few weeks and want to share my findings.
Replace Perfectionism with Improvement
Motivation for Replacement
Perfectionism, both in how it pattern matches and in its actual description in the essay, orients toward focusing on defects and errors in oneself. By depicting the self as always flawed, and portraying the aspiring rationalist's job as seeking to find the flaws, the virtue of perfectionism is framed negatively, and is bound to result in negative reinforcement. Finding a flaw feels bad, and in many people that creates ugh fields around actually doing that search, as reported by participants at the Meetup. Instead, a positive framing of this virtue would be Improvement. Then, the aspiring rationalist can feel ok about where s/he is right now, but orient toward improving and growing mentally stronger - Tsuyoku Naritai! All improvement would be about gaining more hedons, and thus use the power of positive reinforcement. Generally, research suggests that positive reinforcement is effective in motivating the repetition of behavior, whereas negative reinforcement works best to stop people from doing a certain behavior. No wonder that Meetup participants reported that Perfectionism was not very effective in motivating them to grow more rational. So to get both more hedons, and thereby more utilons in the sense of the utility of seeking to grow more rational, Improvement might be a better term and virtue than perfectionism.
I've been orienting myself toward improvement instead of perfectionism for the last few weeks, and it's been a really noticeable difference. I've become much more motivated to seek ways that I can improve my ability to find the truth. I've been more excited and enthused about finding flaws and errors in myself, because they are now an opportunity to improve and grow stronger, not become less weak and imperfect. It's the same outcome as the virtue of Perfectionism, but deploying the power of positive reinforcement.
Replace Argument with Community
Motivation for Replacement
Argument is an important virtue, and a vital way of getting ourselves to see the truth is to rely on others to help us see the truth through debates, highlight mistaken beliefs, and help update on them, as the virtue describes. Yet orienting toward a rationalist Community has additional benefits besides the benefits of argument, which is only one part of a rationalist Community. Such a community would help provide an external perspective that research suggests would be especially beneficial to pointing out flaws and biases within one's ability to evaluate reality rationally, even without an argument. A community can help provide wise advice on making decisions, and it’s especially beneficial to have a community of diverse and intelligent people of all sorts in order to get the benefits of a wide variety of private information that one can aggregate to help make the best decisions. Moreover, a community can provide systematic ways to improve, through giving each systematic feedback, through compensating for each others' weaknesses in rationality, through learning difficult things together, and other ways of supporting each others' pursuit of ever-greater rationality. Likewise, a community can collaborate together, with different people fulfilling different functions in supporting all others in growing mentally stronger - not everybody has to be the "hero," after all, and different people can specialize in various tasks related to supporting others growing mentally stronger, gaining comparative advantage as a result. Studies show that social relationships impact us powerfully in numerous ways, contribute to our mental and physical wellbeing, and that we become more like our social network over time (1, 2, 3). This highlights further the benefits of focusing on developing a rationalist-oriented community of diverse people around ourselves to help us grow mentally stronger and get to the correct answer, and gain hedons and utilons alike for the purpose of winning.
After I updated my beliefs toward Community from Argument, I've been working more intentionally to create a systematic way for other aspiring rationalists in my LW meetup, and even non-rationalists, to point out my flaws and biases to me. I've noticed that by taking advantage of outside perspectives, I've been able to make quite a bit more headway on uncovering my own false beliefs and biases. I asked friends, both fellow aspiring rationalists and other wise friends not currently in the rationalist movement, to help me by pointing out when my biases might be at play, and they were happy to do so. For example, I tend to have an optimism bias, and I have told people around me to watch for me exhibiting this bias. They pointed out a number of times when this occurred, and I was able to improve gradually my ability to notice and deal with this bias.
Expand Empiricism to include Experimentation
Motivation for Expansion
This would not be a replacement of a virtue, but an expansion of the definition of Empiricism. As currently stated, Empiricism focused on observation and prediction, and implicitly in making beliefs pay rent in anticipated experience. This is a very important virtue, and fundamental to rationality. It can be improved, however, by adding experimentation to the description of empiricism. By experimentation I mean expanding simply observation as described in the essay currently, to include actually running experiments and testing things out in order to update our maps, both about ourselves and in the world around us. This would help us take initiative in gaining data around the world, not simply relying passively on observation of the world around us. My perspective on this topic was further strengthened by this recent discussion post, which caused me to further update my beliefs toward experimentation as a really valuable part of empiricism. Thus, including experimentation as part of empiricism would get us more utilons for getting at the correct answer and winning.
I have been running experiments on myself and the world around me long before this discussion took place. The discussion itself helped me connect the benefits of experimentation to the virtue of Empiricism, and also see the gap currently present in that virtue. I strengthened my commitment to experimentation, and have been running more concrete experiments, where I both predict the results in advance in order to make my beliefs pay rent, and then run an experiment to test whether my beliefs actually correlated to the outcome of the experiments. I have been humbled several times and got some great opportunities to update my beliefs by combining prediction of anticipated experience with active experimentation.
The Twelve Virtues of Rationality can be optimized to be more effective and impactful for getting at the correct answer and thus winning. There are many way of doing so, but we need to be careful in choosing optimizations that would be most optimal for the most people, as based on the research on how our minds actually work. The suggestions I shared above are just some ways of doing so. What do you think of these suggestions? What are your ideas for optimizing the Twelve Virtues of Rationality?
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.
—Twelve Virtues of Rationality
Within their own professions, people grasp the importance of narrowness; a car mechanic knows the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, and would not think of them both as "car parts". A hunter-gatherer knows the difference between a lion and a panther. A janitor does not wipe the floor with window cleaner, even if the bottles look similar to one who has not mastered the art.
Outside their own professions, people often commit the misstep of trying to broaden a word as widely as possible, to cover as much territory as possible. Is it not more glorious, more wise, more impressive, to talk about all the apples in the world? How much loftier it must be to explain human thought in general, without being distracted by smaller questions, such as how humans invent techniques for solving a Rubik's Cube. Indeed, it scarcely seems necessary to consider specific questions at all; isn't a general theory a worthy enough accomplishment on its own?