I am going to do something very dangerous today, something that makes me acutely aware of my own mortality. I am going to disagree with Robin Hanson.
In my defense, he wrote an entire blog post called Don’t Be ‘Rationalist’.
The key section:
This blog is called “Overcoming Bias,” and many of you readers consider yourselves “rationalists,” i.e., folks who try harder than usual to overcome your biases. But even if you want to devote yourself to being more honest and accurate, and to avoiding bias, there’s a good reason for you not to present yourself as a “rationalist” in general. The reason is this: you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality.
It seems obvious to me that almost no humans are able to force themselves to see honestly and without substantial bias on all topics. Even for the best of us, the biasing forces in and around us are often much stronger than our will to avoid bias. So we must choose our battles, i.e., we must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases.
Robin is choosing to treat rationality as a limited resource that must be budgeted, though he doesn’t explain why.
A commenter on his blog, Silent Cal, asks him: how do you know rationality isn’t more like weightlifting? The more weights you lift, the stronger you get. If you want to become strong, it’s a good idea to “blow” your weightlifting “budget” on as many useless tasks as possible, as often as possible.
Robin says that rationality may be both like weightlifting and like money. Money also has a way to “buy” future strength in that if you invest your money today, you will get more of it tomorrow. But, he says, even when you’ve made a fortune off of good investments, you still have a limited budget. Or, in the weight-lifting metaphor, no matter how strong you are, if you’re going to be asked to lift a weight at the very limit of your strength at 5, don’t exhaust yourself at 4:30.
But I propose a third metaphor: rationality neither as budget planning nor weight training, but as habit cultivation.
Wait, no. Not a metaphor. Whatever the opposite of a metaphor is. An actual thing.
During my abortive attempt at learning aikido, my instructor taught me some basic rules of efficient bodily movement and posture and suggested that I follow the rules not only in aikido classes but all throughout my daily life. The reasoning was: right now I have certain unconscious postural habits that I adopt without thinking about them whenever I need to sit, or open a door, or whatever. If an aikido instructor is standing next to me, telling me exactly what’s wrong with each of them, I can probably figure out what he’s talking about and correct them. But when I leave aikido class, I’m probably going to relapse into my normal habits, since after all I’ve been doing them for almost thirty years now and they require less effort. The fact that I relapse into my normal habits outside aikido class probably means I’ll also relapse into my normal habits in a stressful situation like a fight, when I really need to be thinking about other things besides posture. But if I can train myself to use proper aikido styles of movement even when I’m doing something stupid like opening a door, my body will become so used to them that they will be the style I default to when my mind is otherwise occupied trying to deal with the guy swinging a broken beer bottle at me. Or, even if I am thinking “aikido aikido aikido aikido” at that point, which I might well be, I will be thinking about the complicated impressive things that supervene on the basic movements, not having to worry about the basic movements themselves.
This whole affair started when someone asked “What if rationality were kind of like a martial art?” And part of the answer to that question would be: you had better make the fundamentals of it perfectly, entirely, down-to-the-bone natural.
But I have an even more relevant example of habit cultivation.
Lucid dreamers offer some techniques for realizing you’re in a dream, and suggest you practice them even when you are awake, especially when you are awake. The goal is to make them so natural that you could (and literally will) do them in your sleep. I can attest that this works. You cultivate the habit of worrying about whether you’re dreaming, and then once the habit is established it continues even in your dreams, at which point it becomes useful.
And I think this is a good metaphor for rationality because it’s about holding on to consciousness.
The problem with dreaming is that it depresses your natural ability to wonder if you are dreaming. Like, you’re being chased around Venice by a giant dragon with the head of your second-grade teacher, and you’re wondering a lot about whether you should make a swim for it in one of the canals, and not at all about whether this maybe, might be a dream. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate the habit of worrying about it, because habits can survive even in states of weakened consciousness where the logical thought that tells you it’s now time to dream-check can’t.
And the problem with irrationality is that it depresses your natural ability to wonder if you are being irrational. One of the fundamental skills of rationality is noticing that you are confused, which also happens to be one of the fundamental skills of dealing with being chased around Venice by a giant dragon with the head of your second-grade teacher. Things like “I should notice when it is a time when I should worry about whether I should notice I am confused or not” just collapse back down to “I should notice when I am confused”. This is not something you can do by conscious thought in the grips of the same weakened consciousness that is causing the problem to exist in the first place. Your only option is the same one the lucid dreamers use: cultivate the habit of always doing the right thing, and hoping maybe that habit will be there when you need it.