Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

In response to comment by gokhalea on Feeling Rational
Comment author: hannahelisabeth 13 November 2012 10:36:26PM 3 points [-]

Rationality doesn't require that you not feel the emotions, it just requires that you avoid letting them bias you towards one conclusion over another. You should follow the evidence to determine the level of guilt of the perpetrator. There is no causal link from how you feel about the event to how it actually happened. I'd have to say that in terms of interpreting the event, there is no room to "agree to disagree" if all the facts are understood and agreed upon. Certainly there's room to feel differently about it based on your own relative situation, but it has no bearing on the interpretation of the event.

The way I see it, emotions and reason serve two complimentary functions. Emotions tell you your goal, what you want. Reason tells you how to get there. Your emotions may say "Go south!" and reason may say "There is an obstacle in my path. In order to reach my destination, I need to first make a detour." If you allow your emotions to override your sense of reason, you'll try to go south and plow straight into the wall, and that lack of reason will hinder your ability to achieve your desired ends. If you think that reason is the way and emotions are the enemy and thus undervalue your emotions, you'll wander around aimlessly, as you'll have no sense of where it is you actually want to go. If one were truly Spock-like, and bad events failed to result in negative affect, there would be no reason to think of them as bad and thus no logical reason to avoid them. (Here you could argue that, well, if it affects other people negatively, that would be reason. But in that case you're assuming empathy--that when bad things happen to others, it makes you feel bad, which is an emotional response.)

Comment author: gokhalea 16 November 2012 07:48:50PM 0 points [-]


So how would you describe those decisions that are made based on the emotion? Are the irrational? Are they unreasonable? How would the fact that you cannot get the relevant evidence play into the analysis of my judgement that is formed at least partially based on emotion? Is the rational point of view in such case just "i dont know"?

This is not meant to disagree with your point, but I want to push to see how far your analysis holds.

Comment author: chaosmosis 31 October 2012 12:46:33AM 1 point [-]

Gokhalea's point is largely that political analyses are so difficult that attempting to apply rationality to them will still produce biased and nonsensical results. You didn't really address that.

Gokhalea, I agree that rational analyses of politics are difficult. You seem to believe that they're functionally impossible. Can you explain why? Also, I don't understand why you feel that avoiding politics on LessWrong is a form of rationalization. What's motivating this rationalization? Finally, I don't understand why you feel that a model of politics which seeks to understand different political positions rather than resolve them is useful.

Comment author: gokhalea 01 November 2012 06:36:56PM 2 points [-]

Thanks, I tried to explain above. Less Wrong's conclusion on analyzing politics is flawed because it is based on the assumption that rationality with respect to politics requires an ideal answer. Pointing out that biases/emotions/etc. are ever present is used to protect the idea that rationality in its purest form always results in a normative answer. "Our model of rationality is always correct -- its just the people are flawed!!!" -- I disagree. The model is wrong. The people are playing their role as members of a social dynamic -- rationality in politics is dependent on their biases, not to be avoided because of them.

The value is awareness -- that is the true goal. To have an understanding of what is going on around you without confusion, anger, unwanted emotions. Rationality is about seeing the world "as it is." The world is social, and I want an understanding of how the world works, with its participants and their various viewpoints, perspectives, beliefs, and actions. I'm not trying to be "right" -- frankly i have political positions but don't really care -- they are a secondary concern to understanding the social dynamic.

Comment author: shminux 31 October 2012 12:05:23AM 4 points [-]

Maybe you missed EY's point, or maybe I'm missing yours. Politics definitely can be discussed rationally, but it is really really hard to keep your identity small while doing so. Every participant in a political discussion has to be constantly aware of their own emotions fueled by a cached arguments associated with a specific wing/party/position, and be skilled at modeling how potential readers would inadvertently misinterpret one's statement, causing them emotional upheaval. And it only takes a small misstep to get people riled up about the issue.

The rule of thumb is "if you identify with any political party/group/movement, you are not qualified to have a rational discourse about politics". Example: if you want to start your reply with "as a libertarian, I ...", you have failed. Another example of a false start: "Republicans do not understand that ..."

Comment author: gokhalea 01 November 2012 06:22:58PM 2 points [-]

Thanks, and I appreciated Paul's article -- very interesting and insightful.

Let me try to clarify --

One of the issues causing confusion is that the definition of rationality is not commonly accepted/subject to some dispute. My understanding of EY's perspective on the definition of rationality is based on his article: What do we mean by rationality

EY is saying that applying rationality yields a normative answer -- and that LW is not receptive to a different idea, such as a model where an argument can be rational but still not be the "correct"/"true" answer. My argument is that rationality, as EY defines it, does not work with respect to politics because political issues do not have correct answers (i'll get to why shortly). So I don't disagree with your point that politics can be discussed rationally -- i just have a different definition of rationality when it comes to politics.

I read Paul's article -- it was very good -- i have previously considered the idea that in politics or religion, everyone is an "expert" and the idea of identities intertwined with people's positions -- no doubt insightful, but i think its incomplete. (i also note that his argument that politics has definite answers sometimes is baffling -- the cost of government policy is NEVER certain -- simply because people can't predict the future or how people will behave in the future).

The issue and uniqueness of politics is NOT that everyone is an expert -- its that everyone is a participant, in a real and legitimate way -- as a voter or policy maker or government leader. As such, politics is truly a social issue -- analytical analysis is possible, but you NEVER going to get a clear answer -- the social issues are forever intertwined with policy. Remember, regardless of how much weight you may put on ideal policies/laws/regulations, the ability of any leader to implement these policies is WHOLLY CONTINGENT on winning an election, thus drawing in all potential voters in the discussion/decision. Another way to think about this is trying to answer the question -- "how to be a good mother" -- this is a social issue among a mother and her kids within the context of their familial unit/environment. You may have high level guidance, but no one can answer this question -- its a dynamic issue that is forever unique in ways that can never yield an answer. I believe politics is the same.

Again, i think politics can be discussed rationally, but in a different context -- it should be analyzed like any other social issue. For example, when there is a personal conflict, there are theories on how to handle this -- you have an approach, but part of it depends on how the other person reacts, their positions, their biases, and WHY they have the particular perspective. RIght/Wrong is sometimes irrelevant because in social issues, being correct is a secondary concern to managing the social relationship (including biases/emotions/identities). Rationality is more subjective when it comes to politics -- and it is very possible to have two positions that are "subjectively" rational but contradict each other with respect to a particular issue -- in the same way you and your friend can disagree on whether you should study x or y or whether you should date a or b -- both can have valid arguments but ultimately a decision must be made. Focusing on the "right" answer is fruitless -- rationality is based on having the emotional intelligence to understanding the dynamics and uncertainty of this particular social relationship.

You may disagree, and thats fine -- I'm trying to learn and this is an exercise that is not easy -- however i point out that it provides an explanation for why rationality (as EY defines) has not yielded a clear answer and thus is a "mind killer." I think the model definition of rationality used here is simply wrong when applied to politics.

Comment author: DaFranker 30 October 2012 05:08:18PM *  -1 points [-]

The difficult part about finding the optimal perfect-rationalist "right answer" for things related to politics is that politics is like an exceptionally difficult, complex and heavy computer program currently being coded by hundreds of programmers, most of which have no formal Computer Science education, and then managing to produce optimal software out of it with only the help of two or three of those coders - the best possible program that achieves absolutely everything that the client wants in exactly the best possible way.

Unfortunately, the example program is so complex that near-optimal solutions do not converge towards the same location in the conceptspace of possible programs, and each programmer has his own idea of what might be good, so you have a large multitude of possible local maximums, all of which are of unknown order of magnitude (let alone being able to decide which is better) and unknown cost (and you can rule out perfect cost-effectiveness calculations), and often even with unclear value-of-information that varies across conceptspace function of the properties of this area of conceptspace (e.g. it has a higher expected human-values cost to experiment with totalitarian-like forms of government than with democratic ones, for a vague picture).

Overall, not only is there a ton of biases, but information is costly and the space of possibilities is vast, and the near-optimals or optimization candidates / hypotheses are not condensed or sometimes not even remotely near eachother. Thus, discussing politics rationally isn't just difficult here - politics are a set (space? field?) of complex Hard problems with tons of data, variables and unknowns, and would probably still be among the more difficult problems to solve if all humans were suddenly replaced with perfect bayesian agents.

Comment author: gokhalea 30 October 2012 09:05:38PM 1 point [-]

Thanks, I agree with nearly all you points but want to push on a particular point you made: (btw, how do you guys have that blue line to show you are responding to a particular comment??):

"Thus, discussing politics rationally isn't just difficult here - politics are a set (space? field?) of complex Hard problems with tons of data, variables and unknowns, and would probably still be among the more difficult problems to solve if all humans were suddenly replaced with perfect bayesian agents."

I would argue that politics is difficult to rationalize BECAUSE politics are in a separate space/field. In other words, i think discussing politics rationally in a manner consistent with Less Wrong's definition of rationality (see "what we mean by rationality" article) is impractical and does not further any knowledge because the definition simply does not apply in a way it can apply to other areas discussed here. Going "funny in the head" is not the reason we cannot apply rationality to politics, we go "funny in the head" because we are using a model that does not work -- we are trying to find answers to questions that, as you describe, are subject to so much uncertainty we are forced to resort to biases. We fail to consider the possibility that there is no right answer -- for those that argue that there is an answer, but humans can't reach it (a HUGELY convenient position) -- that is the same thing, practically speaking, as not having an answer:

If the problem is the model, not the people, change the mode to one where the search is not for the right answer, but a deep understanding of why particular people have viewpoints and the relative arguments therefor. Sure, its not an "answer" to how the world is (or should be), but its a huge step forward in understanding how the world works -- a noble goal if you ask me. The current model of rationality used here simply doesn't allow for this. We are obsessed with certainty, even when there is more value to be derived from better understanding the relative uncertainty.

In his article on rationalization (contrasting it with rationality), Eliezer says: ""Rationalization" is a backward flow from conclusion to selected evidence. First you write down the bottom line, which is known and fixed; the purpose of your processing is to find out which arguments you should write down on the lines above. This, not the bottom line, is the variable unknown to the running process."

On a most general level, it seems the very definition of "rationality", requiring a normative conclusion, is a result of rationalization. More specifically, saying "politics is a mind killer" to avoid applying rationality to politics, and then telling us why people are flawed and can't analyze these things also sounds a lot like rationalization. Is that a forward flowing, rational conclusion? No one here can or will apply rationality in coming to political conclusions (whether a firm answer or not) -- so how can you tell me that its a mind-killer? Perhaps politics is not a mind-killer and instead, politics, within a restrictive definition of rationality, is a mind-killer. These are not fighting words. I just want to understand.

Comment author: gokhalea 30 October 2012 03:36:12PM 1 point [-]

it seems discussing politics is particularly difficult here because under the article "what do we mean by rationality," less wrong members generally reject a non-normative meaning of rationality. This presumes a rational answer, as a general matter, with respect to any particular issue, is necessarily a normative conclusion -- i.e. there is an ideal/correct answer. I appreciate the approach, but if the point of is the "think more clearly/correctly," how can we reject the possibility that there is no normative answer? This is particularly important as there is increasing uncertainty as to what the correct decision should be. Politics is a perfect example -- generally deals with policies in the FUTURE for which there is no good comparable.

The commentators all evaluate politics from the viewpoint of the decision makers -- and describe how our biases and such are too overwhelming to apply rationality to politics -- perhaps the flaw instead is trying to create distinct answers for issues that do not have one. Going "funny in he head" may be a sign that the chosen framework is inappropriate.

In response to Feeling Rational
Comment author: gokhalea 30 October 2012 03:21:15AM 0 points [-]

what about applying rationality to the emotional situations themselves? when your family member dies by virtue of someone elses mistake/accident, does rationality require (in its purest sense) that we evaluate the situation without the emotions that a family member often feels? if not, what if a third party "rationally" evaluates the situation differently? (e.g. "your family member was equally at fault") . Can two different viewpoints about the same event be rational, taking into account each decision maker's relative emotions (or lack thereof)?

Comment author: Brigid 01 August 2012 10:56:33PM 0 points [-]

People who are pro-life in the abortion debate should also be pro- free birth control pills (those not requiring a co-pay).

If pro-lifers were more pragmatic, they would rank the issues that they care about from least-bad to worst. Most would agree that abortion is worse than pre-marital sex. Therefore, they should support efforts to eliminate the need for abortions (not just seek to eliminate the ability to have an abortion). As access to birth control reduces the likelihood of the need to have an abortion, free birth control pills would reduce the overall number of abortions, thus supporting the pro-life stance.

Also, if you agree with the analysis done by Steven Levitt in the book Freakonomics (availability of abortion services led to a drastic decrease in crime), by the same logic, free birth control should lead to a decrease in the crime rate as well.

The catch: That pro-lifers have to believe that they will not be able to get everything that they want politically, and must prioritize their goals.

Comment author: gokhalea 30 October 2012 12:05:06AM -1 points [-]

I think nearly all the responses to this question miss the point. your points (both the original comment and the responses) use a "less wrong" type definition of rationality/pragmatism/reasonableness, none of which apply to the many religious pro-lifers.

When looking at abortion from a religious perspective, and not a legal or "less wrong" rationality perspective, being pro-life is absolutely consistent with not wanting people to use birth control. procreation, all relevant acts and the results relating thereto, are sacred and should not be messed with. Simple - that's all there is to it. Though i personally do not believe in these, it strikes me as a reasonable and principled way of looking at the issue (e.g., most believe life is sacred, most pro-choicers dont like abortion, etc.). The idea of "cutting your losses" and being pragmatic, from a religious viewpoint, is actually quite ridiculous. Losing the issue is 100% better than being pragmatic precisely because it allows the pro-lifer to live their life in a manner that is consistent with their guidepost -- religion. Religion serves as their moral compass. In many ways, these religious morals are consistent with the legal and pragmatic perspectives the less wrong community generally supports. When they diverge, the less wrong community looks to "rationality," the religious look to their religion. I believe a vast majority of religious folks are "subjectively rational." Objective rationality is rationality that can be proven correct. Subjective rationality is rationality that cannot be proven wrong. So long as you cannot prove there is no god (which you can't, sorry!), religious arguments, particularly ones that at its core are trying to preserve life (and embryos that result in life) will have my vote as subjectively rational. I note that most countries, paricularly the united states, were formed and flourished with religious laws carrying the day, at least from moral and personal perspective.

This is not to say your arguments are "wrong" in the abstract, frankly, its irrelevant. In a social environment/community, being "right" is only as important as the number of people that agree with you. We live in a world where a significant portion of the population is pro-life/etc. To me, trying to judge their perspectives within a framework that on its face is inapplicable sounds like a waste. Seems more important to understand the varying models these people are using, since we're forced to deal with them irrespective of having the "correct" (pragmatic/rational) viewpoint.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 24 April 2012 01:25:21AM *  0 points [-]

The beauty of politics is that there is just enough uncertainty to make every position appear plausible to some portion of the public, even in those rare cases where there is definitive "proof" (however defined) that one particular position is correct. [emphasis added]

Well, that doesn't sound very beautiful.

Comment author: gokhalea 24 April 2012 02:02:33PM 0 points [-]

its beautiful in its complexity. its amazing (not in a critical sense, but as an observer) that no can be definitely right in a valuable way about anything. As a reality of life that we must accept and deal with, i think its fascinating, a seemingly impenetrable issue.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 23 April 2012 04:11:18PM 0 points [-]

do you think rational thought cannot explain politics and is an inherent shortcoming of the theory

No, merely a contingent failure of people almost everywhere and always.

Comment author: gokhalea 23 April 2012 05:03:56PM 0 points [-]

so its a problem of the individual, not the theory. not sure how you conclude that if no one can apply the theory to prove it.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 23 April 2012 02:59:44PM 0 points [-]

It's a question of whether to respond to a track record of failure by going off and doing something else instead or persevering. When is it best to attend to developing one's strengths, and when to attend to remedying one's weaknesses?

Comment author: gokhalea 23 April 2012 03:32:07PM 2 points [-]

what is your focus, i.e. what would be the ideal goal that you are saying is difficult or impossible to achieve and so it is rational to avoid -- what goal do you find elusive here -- personal understanding of the correct "answer" in spite of biases, "raising the sanity waterline" as someone mentioned above, or something else?

Both these items suggest a need for an definitive answer to political questions and I'm not sure that is the correct focus.

If applying rational thought to politics has a track record of failure and we agree politics is a part of everyone's reality, do you think rational thought cannot explain politics and is an inherent shortcoming of the theory? (this is other way of saying we should move on to things). We talk about rationality like its the way to live life. its troubling that it cannot answer or explain political issues, which shape our government, laws and community. The value of the a theory should partially be tested based on issues and questions it cannot answer. If there are things rational thinking cannot solve, that is an issue/problem with rational theory, not the particular subject matter.

View more: Next