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.

Once I began to reflect on my mind, I realized that I did have well-defined goals and desires. It became obvious to me that I was merely acting by default, that I was a local hill-climber trying to make my experience better in the moment. I was cast adrift in the sea of life, whittling away my little remaining time in college, without a clear plan for the future. I sat down to reflect on these goals and desires, to figure out what I actually wanted out of life. Anna Salamon wrote a great essay on how humans are not automatically strategic, and I couldn’t agree more strongly. Our goals do not accomplish themselves. I learned that I had to act strategically, to think big, to plan ahead, if I were to achieve what I wanted.

I want modern rationalists to look at the world around them and first ask “Where do I see people winning?” By default, we naturally want to look at the world and ask “Where do I see true beliefs?” Don’t get me wrong, the epistemic piece is vitally important – without the ability to discover truth we can’t figure out why other people are winning and how to go about emulating them – but I want to change our dispensation. I want our immediate gut reaction to be recognizing the strengths of others and figuring out how to obtain those strengths for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if their stated explanations are patently false, they are doing something we should be doing, and it’s our job to figure out what that is.

Eliezer once said that the fundamental question of rationality is “What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it?” Well, the fundamental question of instrumental rationality is “What is your goal, and how can you accomplish it?” Any time you encounter new information or new skills, ask yourself “How is this useful to me?”

You Are A Monkey

Remember that phenomenon of phonological loop takeover I mentioned in the last post? Rationalists tend to identify entirely with their abstract, deliberative reasoning and the verbal ability that it is able to control. This results in a constellation of symptoms including over-inhibition of physical movements and speech patterns, neglecting one’s physical appearance, and disconnection from emotions and intuition, among others. This is not applied rationality, this is not rationality at all, it’s a spandrel tagging along with otherwise beneficial memes.

We are more than just our prefrontal cortex. We are our cerebellum, our limbic system, our brainstem, our bones, muscles, organs, skin… Our emotions and our bodies are just as much a part of us as our verbal reasoning. Divia and I affectionately divide the human experience into “monkey” and “memes” – the ideas that float around in your head, and everything else that is essentially non-verbal in nature. (If your first response was to say “Humans are not monkeys, they are great apes” then you’re still stuck in epistemic purity mode. Monkeys are cute and funny, this is a clever reframe to encourage self-acceptance.)

Winning requires making use of all available resources. The brain is an extremely complex and powerful piece of computational machinery, one that modern computers are only just starting to equal. The vast majority of this processing occurs under the hood, so to speak. We do not have conscious awareness of it by default, but the processing occurs regardless. We can learn to query the subconscious mind and receive some of this information, I refer to this as an “automatic response” and will discuss it in future posts. More commonly we tend to get a “gut feeling” – listen to it! This is the subconscious mind presenting you a nice solution in a gift-wrapped package.

Much of this information is incorporated into a signaling and updating mechanism we call emotions. Instead of seeing it as this exogenous force that whips us around at its whim, we need to instead realize that our emotional state is incorporating information and adjusting our state to respond to new circumstances appropriately. We can even unconsciously act on this information. In the philosophical literature they use the term akrasia to refer to any time our monkey uses our motor cortex to do something that our verbal reasoning decides is not the correct action. Sometimes you may be right and sometimes you may be wrong, but it demonstrates the important point that much of your action does already happen without any deliberation.

So far we’ve mostly discussed the mind, but let’s not neglect the body either. It’s important to remember that we are a physical system, and as such we conform to certain laws. Our cognition is embodied, literally and metaphorically. When your body is not functioning at top capacity, guess what? That affects your thought processes too. Some of the best depression counters are sunlight and exercise, along with cognitive-behavioral therapy. So take care of yourself, and better yet, train yourself. Your body is an important tool. Most of us don’t engage in combat or manual labor anymore, but our physical state does affect our mental state, and furthermore, our physical state affects the mental states of those around us. The way we look, the way we dress, these things signal important traits to our interlocutors.

You Are A Kludge

Something I’ve been alluding to is the non-unitary nature of the mind. The brain itself is modular, with different functions occupying distinct regions of the brain, which are loosely connected together to allow some degree of influence and communication. How would you expect such a system to feel from the inside? Any seemingly unitary nature of the mind derives from the prefrontal cortex creating a compelling narrative for us, probably evolved for social reasons. Techniques such as meditation are useful for removing that narrative and digging down into the raw thoughts and sensory inputs that compose your experience. I am confident that if you observe your experience closely, you will see that it looks much more like a sequence of distinct and only sometimes related snapshots.

How is this insight useful? Remember that epistemic rationality is useful because having true beliefs allows us to interact with the objective world more directly. Getting our mental self-model right means that we can influence our thoughts much more effectively. If we think of ourselves as a monolithic mind, we get confused by phenomena like akrasia. We know what we should be doing, so why aren’t we doing it?

A non-unitary mind gives us an explanation for internal conflict, and thus a framework within which to seek a solution. If there are different parts of the mind, we can mediate between them, for instance. We can recognize the standoff and spend less energy on frustration and just taking the action we were going to take anyway. We can even take the strategic, long-term view: this tiny little module got glommed onto a huge existing infrastructure, and it has to make small changes on the margin, to begin forming habits that can be combined over time to create lasting and powerful behavior change.

Thinking about this also gives rise to one of my favorite concepts: context-dependent cognition. (I discussed this a bit and promised more in a previous article, and it does deserve its own post soon!) By recognizing this powerful effect, we can put ourselves in situations where we automatically take the correct actions. Whether any given neuron is firing is a summation of the information coming in from all connected neurons, which is in turn affected by external sensory input and internal dynamics, both of which we can control. Internally, you can focus your mind on the things you want to change. Externally, we can design our own environments, using the knowledge of our own introspection to figure out what we need to put in place.

Our Environment is the Social Environment

The environment consists of a lot of different factors. When we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, the physical environment was extremely important. Was there abundant food around? What plants or animals were nearby? What was the weather going to be like? These factors drove important decision making, and could mean the difference between life or death. But even then, the social environment was still the most important factor, and this has only grown in the modern world where we must interact with strangers on a daily basis. You can think of the two evolutionary drives as survival and reproduction, and while the physical environment was necessary for survival, the social environment dominated both (and particularly reproductive opportunities). There is even good evidence that navigating the social environment was the selection pressure on bigger brains.

What this means is that understanding and responding to the social environment is one of the most critical skills you can possibly have. This means everything from optimizing how other people perceive you, to understanding group dynamics, to being able to empathize with the emotions of others, to knowing how to convince someone, and much, much more. I’ve had far too many rationalists tell me that they can’t perceive social signals. First of all, they’re simply wrong: almost all humans have the wetware to do exactly these kinds of calculations. Second of all, if there is something you currently don’t have a good handle on, that is what building new mental models is for! This is a fundamental principle of self-improvement and instrumental rationality: you can always figure out what you need to do, and learn how to do it.

I very much used to fall into this camp myself. I was not consciously aware of any kind of social signaling. I did not think fashion was important, or even that it should matter, and so I ignored it. My shirts were too big, my pants were too small. I talked much too loudly (and getting this one right is still tricky). These were all things I had to learn over years and years of practice and observation and training. Now I am finally at the point where I have the confidence that any social situation can (and will) go well. This was completely unfathomable to me five years ago, but piece by piece I reassembled all the mental machinery I needed for social success, so I know this is very much possible. I have even created products that teach these kinds of skills systematically.

Rationality, and Beyond!

This has been my broad overview of what rationality looks like when applied to human beings. Instrumental rationality is the ultimate driver, and epistemic rationality is a beloved tool in our arsenal. We need to have accurate models of ourselves as well as the world, so that we know what our objectives really are, what resources we have, and how to use them most effectively to achieve those goals. Learning to use our intuitions, emotions, social skills, these are all critical pieces of a truly effective agent.

When Divia and I first met, we had the dream of creating a “Rationalist Handbook” that would contain exactly these kinds of insights, and teach them to others. (Back then the Center for Applied Rationality didn’t yet exist.) We still believe that this is important knowledge that could benefit a lot of people, from self-described rationalists to lifehackers to entrepreneurs to anyone else who will listen. One of our goals with Becoming Eden is to share this knowledge, and to create a community of people utilizing these skills (and continuously improving on them) to create a better world. I hope that you will become part of the discussion with us going forward!