The Virtues of Rationality

The name Eliez­er Yudkowsky imme­di­ately con­jours in my mind the word ration­al­ity (thanks to his addict­ive piece of fan fiction, Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ration­al­ity). On a recent vis­it to his site, this con­nec­tion has now be strengthened after I saw his excel­lent essay on the twelve vir­tues of ration­al­ity:

  1. Curi­os­ity: A burn­ing itch to know is high­er than a sol­emn vow to pur­sue truth.
  2. Relin­quish­ment: Do not flinch from exper­i­ences that might des­troy your beliefs.
  3. Light­ness: Sur­render to the truth as quickly as you can.
  4. Even­ness: You are not a hypo­thes­is, you are the judge. There­fore do not seek to argue for one side or anoth­er.
  5. Argu­ment: In argu­ment strive for exact hon­esty, for the sake of oth­ers and also your­self […]Do not think that fair­ness to all sides means bal­an­cing your­self evenly between pos­i­tions; truth is not handed out in equal por­tions before the start of a debate.
  6. Empir­i­cism: Always know which dif­fer­ence of exper­i­ence you argue about.
  7. Sim­pli­city: When you pro­fess a huge belief with many details, each addi­tion­al detail is anoth­er chance for the belief to be wrong.
  8. Humil­ity: To be humble is to take spe­cif­ic actions in anti­cip­a­tion of your own errors.
  9. Per­fec­tion­ism: The more errors you cor­rect in your­self, the more you notice.
  10. Pre­ci­sion: More can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The nar­row­est state­ments slice deep­est.
  11. Schol­ar­ship: Each field that you con­sume makes you lar­ger.
  12. The Void

I believe that the ninth vir­tue, per­fec­tion­ism, is the most eleg­ant and I implore you to read the full essay if only to read that descrip­tion in full (and, I guess, to dis­cov­er what The Void is). How­ever the elev­enth vir­tue of ration­al­ity, schol­ar­ship, almost per­fectly describes why I write here and may go some way to explain­ing my diverse read­ing habits:

Study many sci­ences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you con­sume makes you lar­ger. If you swal­low enough sci­ences the gaps between them will dimin­ish and your know­ledge will become a uni­fied whole. If you are glut­ton­ous you will become vaster than moun­tains. It is espe­cially import­ant to eat math and sci­ence which impinges upon ration­al­ity: Evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy, heur­ist­ics and biases, social psy­cho­logy, prob­ab­il­ity the­ory, decision the­ory. But these can­not be the only fields you study. The Art must have a pur­pose oth­er than itself, or it col­lapses into infin­ite recur­sion.

5 thoughts on “The Virtues of Rationality

  1. Jonathan Blake

    Years ago, his explan­a­tion for the second vir­tue struck me. I had been in the habit of hid­ing from truths that felt threat­en­ing. Work­ing to change that men­tal habit has paid off richly.

  2. finito

    Very eleg­ant essay. But I was pretty dis­s­a­poin­ted to read this guy is the founder of the Sin­gu­lar­ity Insti­tute. I really can­’t think of any oth­er large sci­ence organ­isa­tion that makes such leaps of faith about the future pro­gress of their field. Indeed, is ded­ic­ated to a premise that is very far from being agreed upon, even among A.I. people.

    I remem­ber listen­ing to all the present­a­tions from one of their con­fer­ences, and jeesh, some of it would make L. Ron Hub­bard blush.

  3. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Jonath­an: I assume that this was around the time that you were think­ing deep­er about your place in the church? These vir­tues are def­in­itely tough to fol­low but do indeed bring about great rewards.

    Both: This is def­in­itely a bit of an issue, as their insist­ence on the ‘truth’ of cryo­n­ics and the sin­gu­lar­ity is a bit jar­ring. Nev­er­the­less, I do find cryo­n­ics and the sin­gu­lar­ity intriguing top­ics (even if I’m hyper-skep­tic­al of both), and loved their multi-blog debate on crynoics from late 2008.

  4. Jonathan Blake

    Your assump­tion is exactly right. For those already lead­ing a more or less ration­al life, these vir­tues may seem obvi­ous. At the time the time, they provided a much needed anti­dote to my fuzzy think­ing.

    I also agree that the top­ics are inter­est­ing to con­tem­plate. I just find their com­munity’s zeal for them rather irra­tion­al, based on unjus­ti­fied assump­tions and per­son­al biases that don’t hold for every­one.

    Oth­er­wise, they’re con­duct­ing a very inter­est­ing exper­i­ment on how far delib­er­ate ration­al­ity can take us.

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