[SEQ RERUN] A Sense That More Is Possible

post by MinibearRex · 2013-03-22T05:01:52.957Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

Today's post, A Sense That More Is Possible was originally published on 13 March 2009. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

 

The art of human rationality may have not been much developed because its practitioners lack a sense that vastly more is possible. The level of expertise that most rationalists strive to develop is not on a par with the skills of a professional mathematician - more like that of a strong casual amateur. Self-proclaimed "rationalists" don't seem to get huge amounts of personal mileage out of their craft, and no one sees a problem with this. Yet rationalists get less systematic training in a less systematic context than a first-dan black belt gets in hitting people.


Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was Raising the Sanity Waterline, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

9 comments

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comment by karlrand · 2013-03-22T12:47:15.446Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The level of expertise that most rationalists strive to develop is not on a par with the skills of a professional mathematician - more like that of a strong casual amateur." Are we to assume that professional mathematicians are always to be regarded as the ultimate practitioners of rationality? Given the number of dead ends achieved through pure mathematic theory in attempts to forumulate 'a theory of everything' is it not worth considering althernative methods? As to 'sequence reruns', 'meta discussions' etc agreed definitions of these terms are I suggest not to be taken for granted.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-22T22:27:16.039Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are we to assume that professional mathematicians are always to be regarded as the ultimate practitioners of rationality?

You're misreading the analogy. The quote means that rationalists aren't aspiring to be as good at rationality as mathematicians already are at mathematics (not rationality).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-22T15:20:59.079Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are we to assume that professional mathematicians are always to be regarded as the ultimate practitioners of rationality?

I think it's a failing of the quote in the summary. The actual article says,

Even among those whose few who impress me with a hint of dawning formidability—I don't think that their mastery of rationality could compare to, say, John Conway's mastery of math. [Snip comparisons to other professions...] We practice our skills, we do, in the ad-hoc ways we taught ourselves; but that practice probably doesn't compare to the training regimen an Olympic runner goes through, or maybe even an ordinary professional tennis player.

So what the summary should say is that the skills needed by rationalists are incomparable to the skills needed by e.g., a professional scientist. This coheres with EY's criticisms of Traditional Rationality and the modern scientific institutions (his mancrush on Conway notwithstanding).

Given the number of dead ends achieved through pure mathematic [sic] theory in attempts to forumulate [sic] 'a theory of everything' is it not worth considering althernative [sic] methods?

No idea what you're trying to say. Sometimes people talk about alternative set theories as "theories of everything" but honestly the amount of lost effort is not terribly significant. Maybe you're confused with the physicists' "theory of everything"? That is just a mythological construct that no one serious is actually working towards.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-24T04:23:37.247Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a beautiful idea Eliezer has here, and a fascinating thread. If you'll permit a Star Trek reference, I am reminded of Vulcans and their Kolinahr discipline. Mr. Spock was clearly possessed of a mental mastery and mystique that set him apart from the rest of the Enterprise crew, due to his rigorous Vulcan training.

I am attracted to some kind of "monastic rationality" myself, with similarities to the Eastern schools where people undergo intense training in a non-profane environment. I would like to be among people who not only wish to think differently and chat about it on online forums, but are willing to live differently, in their manner of speaking, dress, “aura of formidability”, hierarchy, etc. For this to happen, rationalists may have to emulate certain martial arts groups, monastic orders and cults – i.e. be unafraid to be non-mundane “in the real.” I’m guessing that if I observed 97% of you in a Starbucks, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish you from the common run of geek-humanity. It seems to me that such should not be the case for real black belts of “logojitsu”, “rationality fu” or Kolinahr.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-24T04:42:30.959Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you still expect that if it turned out that being visibly non-mundane made it more difficult for the "masters" you talk about to achieve their goals?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-24T05:09:11.182Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand your point. Perhaps I am being irrational here. A rationality priesthood may be entirely the wrong approach. I do not deny a certain mysticism about what I'm proposing; as Yvain pointed out in the original thread, Eliezer comes across as rather mystical at times, and I share that inclination. I just find that there is great power in mystical modes of thought, and I suspect that incorporating a bit of that would not hurt the efforts of the masters. In fact, it probably has a lot to do with why Eliezer enjoys the following that he does. Like Vulcans, Eliezer is part logician, part mystic, and it seems to work for him.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-24T05:18:09.403Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are goals, such as fascinating an audience, for which the trappings of mysticism are useful.
There are goals, such as breaking out of fixed mental sets and opening oneself to creative insights, for which the actual practice of mysticism is useful.

I agree that Eliezer uses the former a fair bit. He may also use the latter; I wouldn't know.

The impression I'm getting is that you are not considering the two to be distinct things.
I would say that's an error.

comment by olibain · 2013-03-25T02:44:31.072Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea that mysticism is sometimes useful seems to be counter to popular rational thought. When I began reading Eliezer, his tendency towards the use of zen phrasing and rhetoric that was purely aesthetic put me off. I felt that it was not rational for some reason. I came to see that these trappings of mysticism did not detract from his point, but rather added to its persuasiveness.

The problem that exists in this is not that it detracts from rationality, but that the methods used to increase its allure could be used for any teaching, no matter how wrong or destructive. Good rhetoric is kind of like the whore of persuasion, it makes Bayesian rationality more appealing, but also makes any other argument better. Basically, there is zero correlation between being able to use zen phrasing and aesthetic rhetoric and being right.

I could write a post or two about this, but I will tell you my conclusion; Rationalists should not forsake mysticism, rhetoric, zen etc. unless they can get every irrationalist to agree to do the same. Until then, there is no way for rationality to be convincing without these methods if its opponents are using them.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-25T04:18:14.727Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that the trappings of mysticism fascinate a particular kind of audience, and that if I wish to make a particular practice more compelling to that audience, I can wrap the practice in those trappings as a rhetorical technique. And I agree that this works for pretty much any practice I can imagine.

Personally, I prefer precision in language when possible, both as a means of encouraging precision in thought, and as a means of facilitating precision in communication. But I acknowledge that it is not always possible, both because sometimes my thoughts are not clear, and because sometimes the granularity of language is too coarse to convey the distinctions I'm thinking about.

In the former case, I find poetic language useful as a way of circling around the stuff I'm thinking about but can't quite zero in on yet, similar to circumlocution as a way of bypassing anomic aphasia. In the latter case, I often use poetic language as well, but I'm not sure it's actually useful.

And of course sometimes I'm just sloppy with my language.