Beyond Rationality

I called this post “Beyond Rationality” because I wanted to move past the unfortunate connotations and bad habits associated with the word “rationality” in our culture. With tongue firmly in cheek, Divia and I often refer to the cluster of ideas I am about to present as post-rationality, and you may well encounter us using that very term. But in truth, I don’t see this philosophy as being opposed to rationality in any way. In fact, quite the opposite – I see this as rationality being properly applied. At the end of my last post, I promised to present you with a model of a rationalist human being. Not an ideally rational agent as described by mathematical equations, but how those abstract representations manifest in a living, breathing person. This is my approach to rationality, my philosophy of life, and why I think that rationality is actually an incredibly powerful meme.

Supremacy of the Instrumental over the Epistemic

In the first post in the series I presented my theory that self-described rationalists most often come to these ideas because of an aesthetic preference for truth. They are drawn to epistemic rationality, and that subsequently defines their relationship to these ideas. I found myself in the exact same boat when I first started out, the notion of systematically honing in on true beliefs was the siren’s call that left me immediately hooked. I had to understand these methods and apply them to my own cognition… and this laid the seeds for the triumph of instrumental rationality. [Read more…]

The Promise and Perils of Rationality

In my previous post I laid out what I did and did not mean by the term “rationality”. While I addressed what I consider to be misconceptions around the word rationality and how self-described rationalists would behave, I do think that there are some common problems that real-life rationalists run into in practice. In this post I want to discuss some of what these failure modes are, and what generates them, in the hope of helping others to recognize and avoid them.

The Crusaders

“That which can be destroyed by truth should be.” – P. C. Hodgell

This quote is greatly admired by our rationalist community, as you might expect. Given our aesthetic preference for truth, we want the divine light of evidence to burn away all of the unclean falsehoods that lurk in the unexamined parts of our minds… For those who value truth above all else, this may in fact be the best course of action to apply to their own mind. (The resulting structures formed by this procedure also have an attractive property: that they are robust to reality – revealing known true information cannot damage them, unlike many of the social constructs we pretend exist.)

Our friend Michael Vassar has a great response to this quote: “That’s like saying anything that can be destroyed by lions should be.” [Read more…]

Compassionate Communication Recap

Thanks to everyone who showed up to yesterday’s webinar! The title was Compassionate Communication: What to Say When People Get Upset, and we were talking about the ideas from Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication. We outlined the basic model of NVC, talked about our experiences with it and how we think about it, and even did a bit of empathizing in the moment!

First of all, the recording of the webinar itself can be found here.

Alton Sun helpfully made a collaborative editing document, where he and others took notes. I uploaded it in permanent form to Google Docs here.

I wrote a summary of the NVC book itself a while back, which will give you the important bullet points from the book (though reading it yourself will give you many specific examples and exercises). Divia was many things to say about NVC, though her favorite is probably How to Read NVC.

If anyone is interested in working with us to learn NVC or put it into practice in your life, make sure to drop us a line and we’ll get in touch!

Rationality, Unpacked

The word “rationality” carries a lot of historical baggage and cultural misconceptions, enough so that I have considered not using it at all. Yet a substantial portion of my social circle has decided to adopt this label (spoiler alert!), and for better or worse, it is the label that I use in my own mind. First I am going to address what rationality is not, before talking about this definition of rationality and why we should care about it.

Cartesian Rationality and Axiomatic Systems

The first widespread use of rationalism was a philosophy espoused by Descartes back in the 17th century. In this sense, the opposite of rationalism was empiricism. Rationalism as a philosophy in its extremest form holds that the only source of knowledge or justification is through our own reason. Descartes himself tried to derive all of the “eternal truths” of mathematics, epistemology, and metaphysics through the single starting assumption of cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.

While not every thinker believes that reason is the only source of knowledge, it does have the connotations of conscious deliberation being the primary source of knowledge, or morality, or action. Even a rudimentary reading of cognitive science clearly shows that our brain is a massively-paralleled and mostly unconscious processing machine, with a very small deliberation module attached on top (and particularly connected with verbal processing). Anyone hoping to utilize their reasoning needs to understand where it comes from and what purpose it serves, to avoid deluding themselves and going horribly wrong. [Read more…]

Learning Programming

My relationship with programming has a long and sordid past. We got our first computer when I was very young, and I was immediately transfixed by this devil machine. How did it possibly work?? This curiosity got me a handful of vague enough answers to temporarily satisfy me, and I went about playing Dune II. I remember at one point creating a file, adding .exe on the end, and telling people that I “wrote my first program”. When they asked me what it did I had no answer.

Years later I started to realize that I wanted more. I wanted to be able to command the machine. I knew this was possible to do through this thing called “programming”, though this was still vague. At one point I even said I wanted to be a programmer when I grew up. In retrospect, this skill seems valuable enough that I wish my parents had given me more of a push / support when I was younger – certainly we intend to introduce Lydia to Logo at a young age ourselves.

As it so happened, my dad did at one point give me a book about Java. I proceeded to do a few lessons, marvel at my ability to make the computer prompt me and spit out some text, and promptly forgot that it existed. [Read more…]

O, Fragile Productivity!

As long as I stick to my systems I don’t get sick very often, and thus I sometimes forget what it’s like. Getting enough sleep seems to render me immune to infections, though sometimes I stay up late or wake up too early. If I do start to feel a cold coming on, a complete water fast for 1-3 days will almost always knock it out before it takes hold.

But I don’t always take good care of myself, and then occasionally I have to pay the price.

A couple weeks ago I caught a nasty cold. It knocked me completely out of commission for about three days, as judged by blank entries in my goal tracking system. I figured I would rest up for a few days, mostly lying around the house, sleeping, reading and playing computer games, and then I would jump back on my horse and keep going. Oh how wrong I was… [Read more…]

Exploration/Exploitation Applied

In my previous post, I discussed the exploration/exploitation tradeoff that is inherent to optimizing under significant uncertainty, and alluded to some of the ways that this influences my thinking. In this post, I want to give some examples of how using this framework has actually changed my behavior.

From a Global Parameter…

As far as I can tell from using my introspection, it does seem like the exploration/exploitation tradeoff exists as something of a global variable in mind space. Where I am located along that spectrum changes the way I interact with the world. One notable example is how my curiosity functions. In exploration mode my curiosity is free floating, attaching to anything that catches my attention. This is Wikipedia plus tabbed browsing. In contrast, when I am in exploitation mode my curiosity is goal-directed. What specific skills do I need to accomplish the task at hand? I am very motivated to learn exactly what I need to know to make things happen. [Read more…]

What I Wish I Knew in College

I feel like I only learned how to optimize effectively during my senior year of college. At that point I was mostly set into my college path: I was an economics major, I had already used my off-terms, I was involved in particular organizations, I had my group of friends, etc. What I could change was the entire course of my future, but I still looked back on the previous three years and thought about how I wasted so much time and possibility. I wished that someone had told me what I needed to know back when I was a freshman, it seemed like such a unique opportunity that I simply didn’t know how to optimize when I first got to college.

The typical advice about college is that it is a time to explore. You are expected to get to campus as a blank slate, try out a bunch of different classes (indeed this is often required), and probably settle on some liberal arts major. By default, you will hang out with the first people that you meet, and by mostly sheer chance your social group will be established for you. Thinking about your career is forbidden until junior year at the earliest. You definitely won’t be doing things like paying bills or cooking for yourself for at least four years. I think this is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to what you should be doing. [Read more…]

IFS Unpacked Recap

On Tuesday, Divia and I did our first webinar on Internal Family Systems, a therapeutic technique that we’ve both gotten a lot of mileage out of. We briefly covered the model and some theory about how we think it works, followed by a live demonstration, and then a Q&A.

This time we actually did record the webinar, so click here to listen. [Edit: link now broken, sadly.]

There are also written notes available again, this time courtesy of Scott Fowler.

Thanks everyone for your interest, for attending, for volunteering, for asking great questions, and for giving great feedback!

Lessons From (and For) the Quantified Self Movement

The very first time I heard about Quantified Self I was excited by the world of possibilities contained therein. I pride myself on my self-awareness, and it seemed like adding quantitative rigor to this process would allow me to uncover new patterns below my current awareness – and ideally, to change them. Besides, I liked what I saw from this community: the ethos of self-experimentation and optimization that pervades my own life. You didn’t have to tell me twice, I was already sold. I joined as one of the original members of the NYC QS group, and dove into this world head first.

My Self, Quantified

Seeing some of the projects people were doing was intimidating. Lots of the people involved were the ones building the tools themselves, which was impressive in its own right. Others were gathering lots of esoteric data, combined with stunning visualizations, and I had no idea how to apply this to my own life. [Read more…]