What Has Changed my Political Beliefs

I think it’s safe to say that political beliefs are one of the most sticky types of beliefs we commonly hold. By some measures partisan polarization is at record highs for the modern era (though these figures are also debated). Politics are also beliefs that provoke some of the strongest arguments between differing viewpoints, and the strongest consolidation among shared viewpoints. Eliezer warned us to be particularly careful when grappling with these ideas.

But, as good rationalists, all of our beliefs should be subject to updating upon receiving further information – and when I look at my political beliefs over the years, I see that they have indeed changed, in some ways massively, in other ways slow and subtly. I thought it would be an interesting to lay out what the drivers of these changes were, as a case study in the art of changing one’s mind.

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Summary of A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a handbook of Stoic philosophy by professor William Irvine. He points out that Stoicism is very different than the stereotypes we have developed about unfeeling robots, and in fact it contains a lot of timeless advice for psychological well being. This is not an academic work of philosophy, it is written as a popular self-improvement book. Though he does discuss a bit of the philosophy and history behind Stoicism, the bulk of the book consists of practical and actionable advice to improve your life. My summary reorganizes the book chapters, with a brief intro in the beginning, followed by all the actionable advice and the author’s personal suggestions, and concluding with a discussion of Stoicism in the modern context and some brief notes on the history of Stoic philosophy.

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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…]

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…]

Analytical Parts in IFS

When I do IFS work, one of the first things I have to do before I can really get somewhere with the person I’m working with is to disengage the person’s analytical part. I usually start by doing this implicitly. I choose my questions with the intent of bypassing the analytical mind, and that tends to work pretty well.

Questions about emotions, visually imagery, and feelings in the body are good for this, and there are some other rhetorical tricks that also play into the process. For example, if someone doesn’t respond to the question “what does that part look like?”, I sometimes have better success with, “if that part looked like something, what would it look like?” For some reason counterfactuals often let the analytical part relax.

On the other hand, “why?” questions are very likely to activate the analytical part. [Read more…]