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Feeling Rational

76 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 April 2007 04:48AM

A popular belief about "rationality" is that rationality opposes all emotion—that all our sadness and all our joy are automatically anti-logical by virtue of being feelings.  Yet strangely enough, I can't find any theorem of probability theory which proves that I should appear ice-cold and expressionless.

So is rationality orthogonal to feeling?  No; our emotions arise from our models of reality.  If I believe that my dead brother has been discovered alive, I will be happy; if I wake up and realize it was a dream, I will be sad.  P. C. Hodgell said:  "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be."  My dreaming self's happiness was opposed by truth.  My sadness on waking is rational; there is no truth which destroys it.

Rationality begins by asking how-the-world-is, but spreads virally to any other thought which depends on how we think the world is.  By talking about your beliefs about "how-the-world-is", I mean anything you believe is out there in reality, anything that either does or does not exist, any member of the class "things that can make other things happen".  If you believe that there is a goblin in your closet that ties your shoe's laces together, then this is a belief about how-the-world-is.  Your shoes are real—you can pick them up.  If there's something out there which can reach out and tie your shoelaces together, it must be real too, part of the vast web of causes and effects we call the "universe".

Feeling angry at the goblin who tied your shoelaces involves a state of mind that is not just about how-the-world-is.  Suppose that, as a Buddhist or a lobotomy patient or just a very phlegmatic person, finding your shoelaces tied together didn't make you angry.  This wouldn't affect what you expected to see in the world—you'd still expect to open up your closet and find your shoelaces tied together.  Your anger or calm shouldn't affect your best guess here, because what happens in your closet does not depend on your emotional state of mind; though it may take some effort to think that clearly.

But the angry feeling is tangled up with a state of mind that is about how-the-world-is; you become angry because you think the goblin tied your shoelaces.  The criterion of rationality spreads virally, from the initial question of whether or not a goblin tied your shoelaces, to the resulting anger.

Becoming more rational—arriving at better estimates of how-the-world-is—can diminish feelings or intensify them.  Sometimes we run away from strong feelings by denying the facts, by flinching away from the view of the world that gave rise to the powerful emotion.  If so, then as you study the skills of rationality and train yourself not to deny facts, your feelings will become stronger.

In my early days I was never quite certain whether it was all right to feel things strongly—whether it was allowed, whether it was proper.  I do not think this confusion arose only from my youthful misunderstanding of rationality.  I have observed similar troubles in people who do not even aspire to be rationalists; when they are happy, they wonder if they are really allowed to be happy, and when they are sad, they are never quite sure whether to run away from the emotion or not.  Since the days of Socrates at least, and probably long before, the way to appear cultured and sophisticated has been to never let anyone see you care strongly about anything.  It's embarrassing to feel—it's just not done in polite society.  You should see the strange looks I get when people realize how much I care about rationality.  It's not the unusual subject, I think, but that they're not used to seeing sane adults who visibly care about anything.

But I know, now, that there's nothing wrong with feeling strongly.  Ever since I adopted the rule of "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be," I've also come to realize "That which the truth nourishes should thrive."  When something good happens, I am happy, and there is no confusion in my mind about whether it is rational for me to be happy.  When something terrible happens, I do not flee my sadness by searching for fake consolations and false silver linings.  I visualize the past and future of humankind, the tens of billions of deaths over our history, the misery and fear, the search for answers, the trembling hands reaching upward out of so much blood, what we could become someday when we make the stars our cities, all that darkness and all that light—I know that I can never truly understand it, and I haven't the words to say.  Despite all my philosophy I am still embarrassed to confess strong emotions, and you're probably uncomfortable hearing them.  But I know, now, that it is rational to feel.


Part of the Letting Go subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "The Importance of Saying "Oops""

Previous post: "0 And 1 Are Not Probabilities" (end of previous subsequence)

Comments (71)

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Comment author: michael_vassar 26 April 2007 07:44:52AM 15 points [-]

It seems to me that social consensus accepts expression of strong feelings by women, just not by men.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 April 2007 08:18:13AM 54 points [-]

Is it actually acceptance or just condescending dismissal?

Comment author: TGGP5 26 April 2007 08:55:33AM 0 points [-]

Since they aren't part of the web of cause-and-effect (so they might be epiphenomenal), are norms impossible to be irrational about?

I don't think it's inevitable that having emotion causes irrationality, but I think there is a tendency for it to cloud your mind and restraining yourself is a good idea. Maybe after calmly examining things you can say to yourself "This appears to be an optimum situation in which to freak out".

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 26 April 2007 11:32:24AM 12 points [-]

I agree that strong emotions can be very appropriate to many situations, but also think there is wisdom in the usual expectation that bias is correlated with strength of emotions. So it is crucial for us to develop better cues for distinguishing more versus less biased emotions.

Comment author: michael_vassar 26 April 2007 02:47:27PM 39 points [-]

Well, at the very least women constitute half of society, it's certainly acceptance within that half. I actually think that it's actually acceptance more broadly though. Women are arguably not accepted my men in general, but in so far as they are accepted it is only in a few narrow domains, primarily science, engineering, and big business that women do best by adhering to men's norms. Actually though, emotional suppression is only normative among men in science, in the military, and in low status positions. Enthusiasm (irrational exuberance) is the ultimate business virtue. If one doesn't claim a level of confidence that can't possibly be justified one is simply not a contender for venture capital or angel investor money. In a hierarchy, one's not suitable for upper management or sales. Beyond that, almost all social elites are, in large measure, "emotional expression professionals". Actors and actresses are the most obvious example of this, but I would say that this is also true of athletes, artists, and other performers and entertainers, religious leaders, and politicians. Al Gore was dismissed with a characterization of "wooden". Hitler practiced his emotional expressions for hours in front of a mirror.

Comment author: akshatrathi 10 August 2010 04:32:20PM *  3 points [-]

That's a really nice view to have on emotions. And frankly, I've known it all along but never put it the way you have. Cheers!

What bothers me is that in case of 'emotional expressions' in a profession, it is possible to fake it and am sure we have seen examples of such (hypocrites) in our life. But may be in a given situation it is rational to fake it.

PS: Could you give the source of the Hitler example?

Comment author: iii 21 June 2011 05:01:09PM 2 points [-]

It sounds plausible, but I think its something of a premature conclusion. Consider how one would best fake an emotion: simply by motivating oneself to feel that way. Faking an expression is much much harder than simply choosing a field that matches your own moods and preferences. The reason we see people who don't appear genuine in high ranking positions as well as very low ones is that they are motivated by something other than the above, a drive for excellence or desperation where feelings do become a tool, but thinking in terms of the majority its easier to assume convention and self-discipline makes most peoples professionalism indistinguishable from any other motivator they might feel.

Comment author: DSimon 22 July 2011 06:12:39AM 3 points [-]

"Consider how one would best fake an emotion: simply by motivating oneself to feel that way."

Brilliant. I need to remember this phrase.

Comment author: amya1989 02 October 2011 02:51:17PM 0 points [-]

I'm considering this quote, and also wondering how it would be possible, as most people hold the belief that you can't feel anything that your heart doesn't want to feel. Is it irrational to 'listen to ones heart'? Can you really change your thinking, motivate yourself to change your thoughts and thus change your feelings?

Comment author: DSimon 02 October 2011 08:42:02PM 1 point [-]


Comment author: hannahelisabeth 13 November 2012 08:42:43PM 2 points [-]

Yes. This is called Rational Emotive Behavior Theory, and it was developed by Albert Ellis.

Comment author: Mqrius 28 January 2013 05:07:07AM 2 points [-]

Whenever I notice myself thing "I knew that all along," it reminds me to check for hindsight bias. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

It's one of the easier biases to catch, once you have that cached pattern set up.

Comment author: Matthew_C 26 April 2007 03:43:04PM 1 point [-]

Great points Michael. IE Clinton and "I feel your pain". . .

Comment author: Barkley__Rosser 26 April 2007 06:09:40PM 0 points [-]

This is one of those rare moments where the usually horribly heterodox economist, me, defends orthodox economic theory. So, looked at very closely, orthodox microeconomic says nothing at all about peoples' preferences themselves, which presumably involve their emotional reactions to various things. What is assumed is certain things about these preferences, that people know what they are, that they exhibit continuity, that they have a degree of internal consistency in the sense of exhibiting transitivity, and it also makes people behave more "rationall" and exhibit continuous demand functions if their utility functions exhibit convexity. So, rationality is not about what your preferences are or the degree to which they are based on one's emotions. They are that one know what they are, that they have a degree of internal coherence or consistency, and the, the biggie, that people actually act on the basis of their real preferences.

A lot of the problems regarding "irrationality" involve people behaving in internally consistent manners, especially over time. Behavioral economists are now arguing it out whether one should deal with this via multiple personality (or preference systems) models or approaches that stress focusing on "rationality" and keeping mind one's "real" preferences. Thus, hyperbolic discounting involves "time inconsistency." I want things now that I shall regret having wanted so much later. I eat the candy bar now and wake up fat later, etc. etc. Is this a combat of two preference systems or just "irrationality," People like Matthew Rabin who tend to use the latter approch, in fact say that the goal is to have people be "rational," to know their own real preferences and to act on them. If they really do not mind being fat, then go ahead and eat the candy bar. But in any case, it is perfectly OK either way to have the caring about being fat or not caring about being fat to be based on one's emotional reactions. One should undertand one's own emotional reactions. That is rationality.

Comment author: pseudonymous 26 April 2007 09:34:33PM 1 point [-]

It seems to me that social consensus accepts expression of strong feelings by women, just not by men.

Traditionaly, women were thought inferior to men precisely because they were thought to have stronger feelings.

It is not thought wise to have anyone "emotional" in any position of importance.

But "emotional" is usually interpreted to mean that your feelings are easily swayed.

Comment author: danlowlite 09 December 2010 10:38:03PM *  0 points [-]

"It is not thought wise to have anyone 'emotional' in any position of importance."

By whom? People who would like to "be able to have a beer" with a President?

I think Vassar is a little more accurate here, but that people only apply the lack of emotion within a narrow field that relates to their specialty at work. It would not be beyond the pale to see someone cheering enthusiastically for a sports team, for example.

Comment author: Stephan_Johnson 26 April 2007 09:42:40PM 0 points [-]

Your thoughts on this would profit a lot from some reading of recent research in neuroscience--specifically people like D'Amasio, LeDoux, and Ramachandran, Sacks (there are lots others, too). The idea that rationality begins with some 'asking how-the-world is' as if that act itself were not completely shot through with emotional responses is hopelessly naive. Without an emotional response, one could never even form the judgment that the world-is-any-particular way. The brain lesion studies on this are pretty clear; it's an emotional response that both triggers and suffuses the judgments we make about the way-the-world-is. For sure strong emotional responses can get in the way of other emotionally charged inferences (those that are typically thought of as canonically rational), but the whole opposition of emotions and rationality, as if they were in any way exclusive, is wrong headed. There are some emotional responses to situations that we call rational, and there are others that get in the way of those. The normative evaluation of the judgments must be left up to some other valuative metric--e.g., conducive to other emotional attitudes, etc. In a word, Hume was right, righter than even he knew.

Comment author: Ruiz_F 25 August 2017 07:44:06PM 0 points [-]


Comment author: Gordon_Worley 26 April 2007 10:27:45PM 0 points [-]

As I see it, what's most important is to make a division between rationality and emotions in terms of where they fit in the equations. Rationality describes the equations, emotions provide a source of evidence that must be applied correctly. If an outcome makes me happy, that should make me desire that outcome more, but not make me think that outcome more likely than if it made me sad (unless, of course, I'm evaluating the probability that I will be motivated to do something).

Unfortunately, I think this model of mind is not how the human mind actually works. Emotions appear to change the equations, not their arguments, so eliminating emotions seems like an appropriate measure to increase the human brain's approximation of a rational process. Maybe you can allow yourself feel happy or sad at an outcome without it affecting the outcome, but getting to that point may require an unemotional transition period as you change your thinking to match that of a rational process.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 April 2007 12:24:03AM 2 points [-]

Stephan, it is important to establish normative separation between the roles that emotions play in perception (which may be part of the process of establishing truth) and the roles that emotions play in motivation (which should not normatively affect what we believe to be true). Yes, it may be the same emotion doing both things. But that doesn't change the normative difference in the roles.

When I say "rationality begins with" I am talking about deriving the normative criterion, not about the brain's real-world temporal order of evaluation.

(And yes, I'm read up on neuroscience to the level you specified.)

Comment author: Nancy_Lebovitz 23 September 2007 05:05:12AM 9 points [-]

It's my impression that men and women are permitted somewhat different sets of emotions--men are freer to show anger, women are freer to show sadness. And that showing emotion is more permitted now than it was a few decades ago.

As far as I can tell, it's possible to be emotional (or at least fairly emotional) and logical at the same time, so long as the emotion isn't territorial attachment to an idea.

Comment author: TruePath 13 April 2009 03:38:43PM -1 points [-]

It seems to me that the basic irrationality implicated here is the assumption that there is such a thing as rationality.

Alright, I just wanted to put that in a clever contenentalist sounding quip but didn't quite manage. What I mean is this: It (usually) makes sense to talk about beliefs being true or false. We can even talk about tendencies as being more or less inclined to reach true beliefs (given background assumptions about the distributions of such truths). However, implicit in this post and many of the comments that follow is the idea that rationality is some kind of discipline that can be followed and applied.

Or to put the point differently I think many people here are making the implicit assumption that there is some objectively correct way to evaluate evidence (over and above the constraint of simple logical consistency). However, it's an entirely contingent fact that the sorts of rules we use to predict events in the world around us (scientific induction) actually succeed instead of a world where counter-induction holds (the more times a simple seeming pattern has occurred in the past the less chance it will occur in the future).

Worse, even if you believe that there are some magic objective facts about what the 'right' epistemic responses are to evidence at best rationality is a term that can be applied to a particular description, not to a person or a person's actions. To see why note that I can always describe the same actions by an infinite number of possible rules. For instance suppose my friend asks his computer to spit out a random claim about number theory and decides to put total faith in it's truth despite a widely accepted supposed proof of the converse. Sounds super irrational but yet the same behavior is also equally well described as saying my friend was following the rule of believing claim X about number theory with probability 1 upon first consideration. Since claim X is in fact a theorem that rule is perfectly rational.

Comment author: notriddle 30 April 2013 02:12:18AM -1 points [-]

Correct me if I read it wrong, but did you just say that induction doesn't work? I admit I don't know how to even begin arguing for induction, so you've got a great opportunity; give an actual argument, rather than just saying we live in "a world where counter-induction holds."

Also, while any phenomenon can be described by an infinite number of math equations, the more complicated ones are less likely to be true. See also, Occam's Razor. Obviously, this relies on probability theory, which was formulated by induction, but you did say "even if you believe that there are some magic objective facts" which I assumed to be induction, probability theory, etc.

Comment author: Luke_Parrish 25 May 2009 05:24:32PM 1 point [-]

I agree that you don't have to throw out emotion to be rational. You just have to put it in its proper place. Logical analysis has to be given a higher priority in forming a good picture of events. But once you have done it, emotion is what powers your actions and words, and gives them meaning.

If I did not have millions of years of evolution making me hate death, it would be less meaningful to talk about how much we need cryonics. I would have to appeal to its usefulness in special cases (preserving great minds or useful workers) rather than advocating the abolition of preventable death. It would not be so emotional, or so urgent.

Ironically, the fact that it is so emotional is what leads people in our society to doubt it. They think it promises something they could not hope for it to deliver. Many of them have had to work through the pain of several nearby deaths already, and thus would have to question the assumptions (afterlife, nonpreventability, survival of the species, whatever) that helped them work through it to a state of acceptance.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 31 October 2009 07:56:29PM *  3 points [-]

I agree that it's not necessarily irrational to feel, but I think the way we feel is clearly irrational. For example, our emotions don't seem to work in a time-consistent manner, and we often later regret actions that we take based on strong emotions, when those emotions eventually fade away. If we could modify the way our emotions work cheaply and safely, I think many of us would probably take advantage of the opportunity. A rational agent wouldn't wish to modify its mind like that.

Here's another, more specific example. I sometimes feel a sense of schadenfreude when someone that I might be in status competition with publicly makes a mistake or suffers a setback of some kind. By itself, this feeling may not be irrational (except perhaps on a group level), but I simultaneously feel a disgust for myself for feeling this way, and wish that I could edit away this ugly emotion. (Until then, I have to spend some effort to keep myself from being overly critical of others.) Would anyone claim that these emotions together do not constitute irrationality?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 31 October 2009 08:31:16PM 3 points [-]

If you consider lack-of-emotion as just another kind of emotion, it too will not be activated at the best of times. The "irrationality potency" is not in the presence of emotions, but in the imperfection of the way they act.

Comment author: PetjaY 21 February 2015 05:52:42PM *  1 point [-]

"For example, our emotions don't seem to work in a time-consistent manner, and we often later regret actions that we take based on strong emotions, when those emotions eventually fade away."

There is a rational explanation for this, i will use anger as example: People try to not anger people who easily get angry and violent, so anger has benefits. However this can also cause other people to want to punish angry person for his violence, and here regret comes in and lowers the punishment that angry person gets. Imagine a trial where a man found his wife sexing another man, and hit them both until they were almost dead. Which explanation will lead to a lower punishment? "I do not know what went in to me, and have regretted doing it ever since, i hope they will some day forgive me for losing my mind for a moment" or "By beating them i try to make sure that both my wife and people that know us will not attempt this or any other thing that might upset me badly again"

Comment author: simplicio 13 March 2010 01:46:49AM -2 points [-]

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

That sounds very much like a quote from a Russian anarchist which was I think mentioned in one of Turgenev's books, possibly "Fathers and Sons". Here we go:

"Anything that can be broken, should be broken." ~Dmitri Pisarev

Solomon says: nothing new under the sun.

Comment author: notriddle 30 April 2013 02:15:56AM 1 point [-]

Isn't "by the truth" an extremely important qualifier?! I'm really curious how the two quotes are the same.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 07 April 2010 12:18:29PM 0 points [-]

Rationality destroys emotions.

Not always.

But here is a way in which it happens: My friends sometimes have very strong emotions that generate behavior that is completely imoral, sometimes self-contradictory etc... The natural response in me used to be to get mad at them back, creating a circle of anger for a while, which eventually fades away. When this happens, usually the one with more social credence "wins" and does not have to concede whatever is at stake.

Now, enters rationality. My friend goes super angry about something. I know the emotion works in such and such way, and as such it blinds him from the irrationality of his behavior, and it's imorality. Therefore I do not feel so strongly against him anymore, for I understand what he does not, why he does not etc....

Since I understand him, hating him is no longer natural, for I've detached my conception of the awful moral act from my conception of the "agent" of the act, I understand that it was not him, but what Dennett calls floating reasons, that have done the job.

This is one of the ways reason can and does destroy emotions.

Comment author: Amanojack 07 April 2010 05:25:27PM 7 points [-]

I'd phrase it as, rationality prevents you from experiencing irrational (i.e., pointless) emotions.

My theory is that almost all negative emotions have to be learned by imitation. They are cached responses copied from role models at an early age, almost always irrational (read: counterproductive), and unfortunately there is no automatic updating system for them.

Even worse is that whenever we experience a cached negative emotion our thinking is impaired (especially by anger), so there is even less chance that we'll notice and update it. Still worse is that even if we notice the response is irrational and try to update, once the sour taste of the emotion has infected the mind a clean update becomes extraordinarily difficult.

My solution: Make it a habit to imagine awful or offensive situations in advance, and see yourself reacting perfectly.

Like imagine you get stuck in traffic when you're in a hurry, but you're totally zen about it. Since it's your imagination you may as well be 100% chill, heck why not even find some reason to be happy about it? Then that will be the cached response next time you hit traffic.

Or say someone's kid spills grape juice on your new white carpet (and realistically you're not going to ask for remuneration). May as well imagine yourself reacting wonderfully, without missing a beat, no hint of irritation whatsoever. This kind of thing really impresses people.

Comment author: notriddle 30 April 2013 02:27:55AM -1 points [-]

Starts out right; being pointlessly angry at all those crazy drivers is a waste of energy, and often the result of various fallacies (fundamental fallacy? if you drove like that, you'd have a reason to).

But then you mention "why not even find some reason to be happy about it?" That's a bias; cut it out. Also, you want the kid to realize that spitting juice onto the carpet is unacceptable.

Comment author: lockeandkeynes 09 July 2010 12:47:12AM 0 points [-]

Someone who takes rationality-as-attire (like Roddenberry's Spock) would avoid strong emotions because they are superficially irrational.

Comment author: michaelcurzi 02 January 2011 02:18:20PM 2 points [-]

I'm particularly interested in the idea of rational emotion promoted by Objectivism:

"Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss."

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon

Comment author: Torvaun 21 February 2011 02:11:05PM 0 points [-]

Recently, there were rape allegations cast at Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. Some people in positions of power saw fit to expose identifying personal information about the accusers to the Internet and therefore, the world at large. This resulted in the accusers receiving numerous death threats and other harassment.

When safety can be destroyed by truth, should it be?

Comment author: Celer 11 May 2011 01:17:26PM 7 points [-]

I disagree here with what seems to be an unstated assumption. Namely, that the injunctive "That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be" is intended for application to the world. I instead understand it, as I think many here understand it, as applying to beliefs. If I believe something, it should not be false, and if I think it is false, it is a good thing for me to destroy that belief. Furthermore, in debates over religion, politics, and science, truth is the value that should be pursued. But the idea that I must tell the police about a crime a friend committed because "what can be destroyed by the truth, should be" seems absur, and it is not how I or, I think, many others interpret the phrase.

Comment author: vmkumar 02 June 2011 08:01:46PM 2 points [-]

In my entire team of Engineers, the one common look I get is a Poker face. It appears that this kind of expression is "default", and showing emotion is something foreign. I wish people would be OK with just expressing themselves - how they feel about any particular situation.

Then, the truth would quite often be out on the table, and everybody can then deal with it [along with the consequences!]

Comment author: Randolf 02 October 2011 10:45:43PM -1 points [-]

I think that the saying "What can be destroyed by truth, should be" is a little bit too black and white to work well in all aspects of life. For example, a clumsy and fat person who thinks he is actually rather agile, might be a lot happier with this false belief than if he were aware of the truth*. Of course it could be said that if he knew the truth, he would start to exercise and eventually become healthier, but that's not necessarily the case. Another example would be, that if a not-so-good-looking person thinks he looks good, he might be encouraged by that false belief to ask someone he likes for a date.

*Here when I talk about truth, I mean that how things are in the physical reality. ( whatever that may mean. )

Comment author: notriddle 30 April 2013 02:35:40AM -1 points [-]

I may be somewhat more radical than a lot of people here, but I don't think the fat man should be deluded. It will hurt him more in the long run, because, believing himself to be agile, he'll sign up for physically strenuous jobs and may injure himself, or try to compete in sports and be let down hard, instead of lightly like a controlled reveal could be.

Comment author: Grognor 21 October 2011 07:31:37PM *  5 points [-]

Having read Feeling Good, I have a different view on emotions than those posed thus far in the comments.

Anger might be a valid response to the little goblin tying your shoes together, but the rational person asks, "Does it benefit me or hurt me to feel anger?" Anger is generally a maladaptive response in today's environment of tremendous punishments for physical violence, and that's beside the fact that it is an extremely unpleasant feeling.

Instrumental rationality, remember? If it prevents you from fulfilling your goals to feel x, then x is unwarranted.

In Eliezer's case, "It benefits me to feel sad because my brother died," is uncertain. Maybe it motivates him to work really hard at creating Friendly AI and is thus warranted, but the impression I get is that he was already doing that.

I almost hope he doesn't see this comment, but I'd like to see his response. I have a vague feeling of something crucial I overlooked.

Edit: It seems Amanojack expressed this sentiment earlier, and I didn't really need to post this. Oops.

Comment author: hannahelisabeth 13 November 2012 10:18:19PM -1 points [-]

It does benefit you to feel sad because your brother died, though not exactly directly. The reason you feel sad is because you were attached to him. You would not feel sad if he were a random, namless (to you) stranger. Having that attachment is beneficial, even if the consequent emotion is not. But the two are inextricably tied together, and the prospect of sadness at the loss is part of what keeps you wanting to look after each other.

The question of rationality in emotions is better considered in the framework of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. An emtion is irrational if it results from an irrational belief, one that is dogmatic, rigid, inflexible. When you recognize this and replace the irrational belief with the rational one, the irrational emotion tends to be replaced by a rational one.

In the example of the goblin, the anger is not a direct result of the goblin tying your shoes together, but of your beliefs about the goblin tying your shoes together. Common anger-inciting beliefs are "he shouldn't have done the" or "I can't stand that he did that." But why shouldn't he have done that? Is there some law stating goblins can't tie shoes together that was violated? Can you not stand that? Will you expire on the spot if that happens? No, what you really ought to realize is that "it's unfortunate and inconvenient that the goblin tied my shoes together." And when you think that thought, the anger typically turns into mild irritation or disappointment.

In the case of losing a brother, being sad and mourning is a normal, natural, and healthy response. If you went around thinking "I can't live without him" or "I can't stand that he died" you're going to upset yourself irrationally and likely end up unduly depressed. If you replace those thoughts with "It's very sad that my brother died, but I can tolerate it and life will still go on" you will likely be sad and mournful, but then move on with your life as most people do when they lose loved ones.

Comment author: GracefulDave 18 November 2011 08:25:05AM -1 points [-]

Emotions can result in conclusions that do not arise rationally. You don't CHOOSE to be angry, and this anger can make your decision for you.

We are also very well acquainted with hindsight. We can look back on a situation that resolved itself in a way we would have avoided, if only we hadn't been so emotional. I really feel that the emotionless state is the default.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 November 2011 08:47:41AM 4 points [-]

You don't CHOOSE to be angry

Speak for yourself!

Comment author: kilobug 18 November 2011 09:04:30AM 3 points [-]

You don't CHOOSE to be angry

To a point, you do choose to let yourself be angry or not. The same thing that will make you angry in general, when you know you can't afford to be angry (like you're in a job interview or a first promising date) you'll not let yourself be angry.

It's not always easy, but you can train yourself to control your anger better, and everyone does have a limited ability to choose when to be angry and when not.

Comment author: hannahelisabeth 13 November 2012 10:22:23PM 1 point [-]

To some extent this is true. Strong emotions do have the power to shut down activity in the executive centers of the brain. There's a physiological basis for the idea of "seeing red" when you're angry. However, you can also train yourself to stop your emotional reactions in their tracks, think about them, and change them. You can choose not to be angry, but you likely need education and training to do so, and you may not be successful 100% of the time. But you can certainly improve dramatically.

Comment author: Spectral_Dragon 23 April 2012 03:01:18PM 0 points [-]

Interesting post. I think something like that happened to me - I was only glad when I was right, or at least thought I was right, but... Doesn't rationality in general diminish sadness over non-acute things? Sure, wars are awful no matter how rational or irrational you are, but... For example, dealing with the fact that The Universe Doesn't Care seems very troublesome for a lot of my peers, to the point where they push it away, same with genetically-determined intelligence.

Same with, as I've noticed, a seeming lack of empathy towards people. Not sure how to deal with that, as I want to be right, and correct others, even when they don't like it. Ah, the dilemmas... And I can't think of a third alternative either.

Comment author: donjoe 01 May 2012 09:44:02AM 0 points [-]

"our emotions arise from our models of reality. If I believe that my dead brother has been discovered alive, I will be happy"

Fallacy of the single cause. Knowledge of the physical fact of his being alive does not completely determine your response of being happy, many other things come into this, of which at least a few are non-rational. Maybe your brother is a convicted serial killer who recently escaped from detention, killed a few more people according to his old habits and is now reported to be alive only by virtue of having escaped a police hunt through the nearby forest (with officers ordered to shoot on sight). Yet still you may be happy to hear he's alive (and here comes the usual explanation people give, the real explanation) "because he's your brother". This is considered to be the most important factor in your being happy in this case - "because he's your brother" - and it encodes some non-rational baggage together with some arguably rational things (like an evolutionary preference to support the survival of your kin's genes etc.).

The fact is that any human preference results from multiple causes and at least one of those will always be non-rational (which is to say I don't know of even one single example where this was not the case) and will open said preference to being labelled "non-rational".

Reason is just a tool. Before you decide what to use the tool for, you have to have non-rational preferences about which things to even try to do. For example, first you have the non-rational desire to predict the future behaviour of physical systems with high accuracy and only afterwards do you employ rational methods to achieve that (which leads to science). The only rational part is what you're doing after you've established your fundamental goal. The fundamental goal itself can't be rational insofar as it can't be derived logically from any antecedents. Even if your desire to predict things was based on your desire to survive and even if the desire of the individual to survive could be justified on the basis of the evolutionary goal for the species to survive, you still end up at a point where you can no longer offer any justifications. Why should your species survive and not others? Maybe you think your species has the highest capacity of ensuring the survival of life-in-general in the universe for the longest time? But even then, why should life-in-general survive? Just because. Non-rationally. :)

Comment author: khafra 01 May 2012 07:16:33PM 1 point [-]

Good catch; reason cannot determine our end goals. Eliezer covers that a just a few essays down the road.

If I believe that my dead brother has been discovered alive, I will be happy.

This was actually a personal statement, not a general hypothetical; his brother died three years before he wrote that essay, and wasn't a serial killer. But Eliezer would agree that death is just plain bad; that's a terminal value that doesn't have--or need--rational justification.

Comment author: avichapman 22 May 2012 04:16:00AM 6 points [-]

I was talking to someone the other day about our treatment of sexual offenders. She seemed to be insinuating that I didn't care about the plight of the victims because by proposed solutions were all aimed at reducing sexual violence rather than punishing the offenders.

I told her that the injustices visited upon the victims of sexual abuse made me very angry, which made me passionate about fixing the problem. Having set my goal of reducing sexual violence, it behooved me not to let my anger at the perpetrator distract me from the task of achieving that goal. If I'm ever presented with a choice where I can either punish the perpetrator or help the victim (or future potential victims), I chose the latter. You can't always do both at the same time.

So I suppose emotions can be rational in that they can arise from truth, but they can also be very irrational in that they prevent winning your goals.

Comment author: Darren_Nolen 03 August 2012 08:26:57PM *  1 point [-]

An interesting perspective on the validity of emotional states vis-à-vis Rationality.

I have something of a fear of heights. This fear is, I realize, irrational. Certainly, Being afraid of falling and the resultant injury or death is reasonable and potentially useful. However, fear when it is completely unfounded…

I remember a spring break some years back, where I learned to ski and enjoyed it very much indeed. I was, however, held back by my visceral reaction, whenever approaching a portion of the trail where I could not see my path of travel, part of my brain was absolutely convinced that I would find myself plunging into the yawning crevice which awaited me. This was irrational as I well knew that were the designers of ski resorts prone to leaving yawning crevasses laying about they would find a definite limitation in their repeat business.

“Nothing doing,” said my brain, “there is the veritable Grand Canyon just beyond that hillock, and I am locking the legs in ‘Snow Plow’ position until I see different!”

Comment author: Epiphany 23 September 2012 05:56:38AM -1 points [-]

Related Einstein Quote: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

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: 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: hannahelisabeth 17 November 2012 09:25:25PM 1 point [-]

Well that really depends what the decision is and what the circumstantial factors are. As I said in my last comment, decisions are made by a combination of emotion and reason. Emotions tell you where you want to go, and reason tells you how to get there. Whether or not a decision is reasonable depends on (1) was it an effective (and efficient, though that's somewhat less important) way of achieving your goal? Did it actually produce the outcome desired by your emotions? And (2) was it consistint with reality and the facts? Was the decision based on accurate information?

Taking the example you gave, of a family member being hurt by someone else in an accident, your emotions in reaction to this event are likely to be very charged. You just lost someone that was important to you, and you're bound to feel hurt. It's also very common to feel angry and to want revenge on (or justice for) the person that was responsible. It's not clear to me why the human default is to assign guilt without evaluting the situation first to see whether or not the person actually is guilty, but that does seem to be the common response. In this case, it would be up to a jury to decide whether this constituted manslaughter. It's most probable that the jury, having no vested interests besides ensuring justice, would be able to come to the most rational conclusion.

That said, if you are being truly rational about it and if your emotions are telling you your goal is to find out who (if anyone) was responsible, then your conclusion should be no different than that of the jury's. Of course, most people do allow their emotions to bias them, and aren't rational (thus the need for the jury). But if you are being rational about it, and your goal truly is about discovering the guilt or innocence of the parties involved, then how you feel about the situation is what is motivating your search, and reason and evidence should be what determined your answer. If you really don't have enough evidence, and the evidence you do have doesn't point more in one direction than the other, then yes, the rational conclusion would be simply to admit that you don't know.

One should be careful to inspect what exactly that emotional motivation actually is, if it's to determine guilt or innocence, to learn the truth about the situation, and not to find someone to blame so that you can feel better about it. (Although, how it would make you feel better to condemn a potentially innocent person when it will do nothing to bring back your family member nor help anyone else is a mystery to me. Alas, human beings have a lot of nonsensical intuitions.)

That said, if you're honest about your intentions, and what you really want is to blame someone else, and not to find the truth, and the possibility of blaming someone innocent isn't inconsistent with other explicit or implicit pro-social goals of yours, then to point the finger without basing your conclusion on the examination of the evidence isn't strictly irrational, since it would be consistent with your goals, to which the facts aren't relevant. However, that sort of approach would be pretty anti-social, and I doubt anyone having that goal would be honest enough to admit it. If your stated goal is to find the truth, then the only honest thing to do is look at the evidence, follow it, and be prepared that it might go either way.

It does no good to write in the bottom line before you start if your goal is to find out the truth. You won't arrive at the truth that way, and if your emotions tell you the truth is what you want, then that behavior would be irrational. In the words of Eliezer Yudkowsky, "Your effectiveness as a rationalist is determined by whichever algorithm actually writes the bottom line of your thoughts." I strongly recommend you read Eliezer's posts The Bottom Line as well as Rationalization, as they address the issue you seem to be struggling with.

Comment author: Multiheaded 28 August 2013 03:58:14PM *  5 points [-]

A somewhat related, incredibly badass quote.

"...I hear some one of my audience say,... ...you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it..."

"...Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him..."

"...At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. "

-Frederick Douglass, black Abolitionist leader, in What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

(Related, Richard Rorty on a pragmatist/postmodernist approach to human rights, solidarity and empathy.)

(P.S. Considered posting this in Rationality Quotes first... but I hoped that the context of EY's essay might help the quote look less provocative/trollish for LW.)

Comment author: MarsColony_in10years 07 April 2015 01:44:13AM *  0 points [-]

This is a fantastic quote set of quotes. I think it is necessary to attach a disclaimer, though. As he points out, there are definitely circumstances when the right and proper response is to ridicule hypocrisy and reign down scathing critique on those who uphold things they know to be unjust. However, such circumstances can be defined fairly narrowly, and don't apply to most cases. This isn't a catch-all license not to have to debate an argument, because that would require a similarly well-justified reason.

When there is a consensus that something is morally wrong and has a better alternative, but some who benefit from the practice put up a flimsy defensive argument that most people see straight through, then the thing to do is rouse the populace against what they already know to be unacceptable. But if the point itself is hotly debated with many people on both sides of the thing itself (not just arguing that it is a necessary evil, but arguing against any "better" alternative) then one should be wary. After all, political debates should not appear one-sided. These types of political arguments seem to be the most common.

The thing to do in the case of most circumstances is to find where the truth lies. Not just to pick a side, but to objectively examine all arguments, and weigh the pros and the cons as they are found, and update beliefs to match reality. Only once the truth has been found with a high degree of certainty should things have shifted from a purely intellectual investigation into all-out advocacy. The academic approach approach should slowly transition from discussion into lobbying as evidence builds. At the far end of the spectrum, to be reached only once one has an extremely high degree of certainty in one's arguments, is "a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke". I don't think it's possible to reach sufficient certainty in one's own opinions without the pier-review of an entire population for a while, perhaps an entire generation. If, after a generation of debate, a super-majority are sympathetic to the cause but are unwilling to fight the entrenched powers that be (or to give up their own comforts, or to make the massive changes needed to correct the problem, or whatever has prevented resolution so far) THEN it is time to abandon traditional discourse and the usual debate. That is what's needed, under those circumstances, to actually motivate the populace to do what they already know to be the right thing.

Note that Frederick Douglass was speaking about issues which had been widely debated for almost a century, with one side claiming "necessary evil", and the other showing by example that it wasn't, in fact, necessary at all. If one's own cause doesn't compare, then perhaps more careful thought or more discussion is what is called for. That's not to say that the issue appeared clear cut at the time, (it definitely did not), but only that only relatively small logical steps (in an objective sense ) to arrive at a high-certainty conclusion. Such quotes aren't justification for anyone to do the same with their own pet issue, at least not without very careful consideration of whether it is really what is needed most.

Comment author: Jiro 07 April 2015 04:55:22PM *  0 points [-]

Only once the truth has been found with a high degree of certainty should things have shifted from a purely intellectual investigation into all-out advocacy.

You're basically saying that we shouldn't reject rational discussion unless our cause is really, really, proven. And everyone thinks their cause is really, really, proven. It doesn't matter whether you phrase it as "high degree of certainty" or "showing by example that it wasn't necessary" or "only has a flimsy defensive argument" or even "there is a moral consensus"; everyone's pet cause falls into that category, as far as they are concerned.

Just like you need to give criminal suspects trials even if you think they are guilty, you need to treat ideas rationally even if you think their supporters don't have a case.

Comment author: MarsColony_in10years 07 April 2015 06:11:44PM 0 points [-]

Just like you need to give criminal suspects trials even if you think they are guilty, you need to treat ideas rationally even if you think their supporters don't have a case.

If we had an infinite amount of time to spend treating all cases equally, then I would agree that all opinions should be argued out rather than ignored. Unfortunately, we only have limited time, and have to allocate it where we think it will do the greatest good. I think that a perfect rationalist would encounter ideas that aren't worth the time to debate fully with their proponents. Unfortunately, we aren't perfect rationalists, but thankfully we know that we aren’t perfect rationalists, and can try to compensate for our inadequacies. One such inadequacy is that we generally drastically overestimate how likely we are to be correct. In extreme cases, we even assign 100% certainty to things. The previous 2 sequences explain why this is a very bad idea. I think this is the sort of thing you were pointing out, and I would agree with you on that.

Even so, if I am extremely certain of something, and have good reason to believe that I’m not missing some subtle point, (such as the topic having been previously debated to death for the previous century), and if I apply a correction factor to compensate for the tendency I know I have to overestimate probabilities… if I do all this, and the probability of being correct still turns out to be quite high, with a narrow standard deviation, then I would indeed be inclined to waste little to no time on further discussion, and instead devote all my energies to fixing the problem by any means necessary.

Further, I suspect that you do the same to some degree. What issues do you spend more time arguing oven than solving? (maybe most political issues) What issues do you spend more time solving than arguing over? (perhaps you and your spouse spend more time actually doing housework then discussing the details of how to optimally divide labor) What issues do you spend 99% of your efforts fixing, rather than discussing the best fix? Aren’t there some issues where you sometimes refuse to “feed the trolls”, thus rejecting an opportunity to debate a topic that you are extremely sure of? Or do you make a policy of always replying to all such bait?

I'm not saying it would be a great heuristic to follow, especially for most people. I'm saying, that in an extremely narrow scope, it holds true. If you take the limit as p(correct) goes to infinity (Well, infinity if you are using decibels (∞db) or odds (∞:1), but 1 if you are using fractions (1/1 chance) and 100 if you are using percentages (100%). But I think decibels illustrates the point nicely.) eventually you have to start acting quite similar to how you would if you were 100% certain. That’s why Cromwell’s Rule exists; to protect us from rashly assigning such ludicrously high probabilities to anything. That overconfidence is the real problem.

Comment author: Jiro 07 April 2015 06:40:34PM *  0 points [-]

I'm saying, that in an extremely narrow scope, it holds true.

Yes, it does. I would, for instance, put creationism in that category.

But I suspect the advice would be bad for most people, at least most people of the kind you see in Internet arguments, because people have a habit of saying that all sorts of things are really well established to all reasonable people and are only opposed by the deluded and by those with a stake in the problem. I wouldn't, for instance, put capital punishment, or vegetarianism, or effective altruism, or immigration, in that category, but I've seen people treat all of those that way.

Comment author: Shield 05 October 2013 02:25:38PM 2 points [-]

What is it with you and shoelaces?

Comment author: laofmoonster 21 November 2013 12:54:33AM 0 points [-]

Emotions, like any sensory input, can serve as a source of information to be rationally inspected and used to form beliefs about the external world. It is only when emotions interfere with the process of interpreting information that they become detrimental to rationality.

Comment author: pranali 05 August 2016 05:01:42AM 0 points [-]

I don't think this covers the role of emotions in regard to instrumental rationality. The most negative consequences of emotions are how they control our behavior inspite of knowing the rational thing to do based on rational beliefs. I think there is far more merit to the idea of being able to completely control your emotions than you credit. Using emotions as a driving factor for motivation is counterproductive in many situations because you are not in control of how and how much they affect you.

I think you've wrongly interpreted being in control of your emotions to being emotionless.

Comment author: Benquo 17 August 2016 06:54:11AM 0 points [-]

"Since the days of Socrates at least, and probably long before, the way to appear cultured and sophisticated has been to never let anyone see you care strongly about anything."

I would strongly encourage anyone who wants a good counterexample to read Plato's Symposium, where the desire for wisdom is specifically linked with erotic desire.