Friday, August 24, 2012

In Offense of Rationality

Okay, I said I'd get around to my issues with Rationality several months ago. So maybe I actually should. To start, I'm not against being rational. It's just a mode of thought that says "don't use invalid premises." The problems start when you try to define what an "invalid premise" is. Based on how you do it, Rationality as a worldview forks into two major camps:

Truth-Rationality: an invalid premise is one that contradicts objective reality. In other words, seek the truth, and only the truth. Believing in, say, astrology is right out. Sometimes called "epistemic rationality".

Value-Rationality: an invalid premise is one that makes it more difficult to achieve your goals. Believing in astrology is okay if it by some strange miracle benefits you in the long run. Sometimes called "instrumental rationality".

I feel that Value-Rationality is pretty tautological (Think things that are good for you! Don't think things that are bad for you!), so I'd like to focus most of the rest of this post on Truth-Rationality. Most people who've gushed to me about Rationality have, explicitly or not, taken that stance. And it's a very tempting stance to take. Truth is good, so why not use it in all things? I can think of three general reasons:

The Truth isn't always available. This is primarily true with non-naturalistic things, such as religion and the supernatural. When the rationalist says "it's irrational to believe in god", he's saying that there's no evidence to believe in god. But at the same time, there's not evidence to not believe in god, either. If you start talking about how it's unnecessary or hurts people, then you're not arguing about the truth. You're making a value-judgment.

The Truth isn't always necessary. Do we have free will? Who cares? Having free will isn't gonna affect you one way or another. Trying to come up with a "rational" argument about it is a waste of time.

The Truth isn't always helpful. This is the important one. People are far more empowered by their beliefs than their knowledge. If you learn knowledge that contradicts your beliefs, then you could very well sabotage your ability to do well in something. Normally this is used in conjunction with belief in religion, but that topic is so damn volatile I'd like to give some more down to earth examples:

-If you take a group of students and tell half of them they are smart and the other half they are hard workers, the latter group will develop considerably more over time. This is true even that group didn't start out as hard workers. Their untrue beliefs give rise to actual, measurable differences in ability.

-Let's say you start going to the gym. Initially, you feel embarrassed that you're so much less fit than everybody else there, but tell yourself that they're not paying attention and focus on exercising. Over months you start getting much stronger and healthier. When you start talking to the other gym-goers, one admits that during the first two months everybody was laughing at you behind your back.

Would you really have wanted to know that from the start?

And no, don't go "that wouldn't have stopped me". Unless you've been bullied before (and even then) you have no way of predicting just how much pain it would have caused you. Maybe it would have been tolerable. Or maybe it would have caused you to go less or even stop entirely. Is having do deal with the truth really so much better than just pretending that everything is okay?

This isn't a special case, either. Confidence in yourself is almost a necessary condition to succeeding at something. It's easier to give a good speech if you're confident you're a good speaker, even if that means overestimating yourself. And confidence in yourself is often disconnected from the truth. It's very hard for physical knowledge to make you feel better about something- Our minds are better at manifesting raw emotive will than producing it from abstract facts. The truth can help, if it provides grounds to support, and it can prompt you to do better, if you can see room for improvement. But for truth to always help? Nope. It's a lot easier to use the truth to shatter your confidence than to bolster it.

This is not to say that the truth is conditionally bad. Often it's incredibly important we find it. One of the big advantages of Rationality as a worldview is that it emphasizes we understand our cognitive biases, like our habit of externalizing our problems. And often, even if the truth hurts now it will help in the long run. But that doesn't mean you should embrace it and damn the consequences. There may be a way of using false premises in the short run and the truth in the long run. Delusion is a pretty neat thing.

Now a lot of rationalists say there's No Such Thing. There's never a case where a false premise provides more value than a true one. This is such a sweeping statement about humanity that I find it utterly ridiculous. See the gym example. See religion. People are a mess of contradictions and groundless beliefs, but many can draw power from it. If you can live completely free of false premises and still have the same level of empowerment, then you're not human. You're an ubermensch.

Truth-Rationality has some serious problems. You're welcome to still have it as a worldview, but you should recognize that it cannot and does not work for everybody. Sadly, I do see a lot of Truth-Rationalists see themselves as better than those who aren't. Maybe if you could be a perfect TR, where your mind is just so and the flaws in TR don't apply to you. But if you were a perfect TR, you'd see yourself as equal to everybody else on this earth. It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as it drives you to grow as a person.

Or not, if that's not your goal. I shouldn't be judging.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Hardest Question

I find I write best when I am writing about someone who, justifiably or not, made me rage. This last happened on Sat night, when a few of us were drunkenly playing the answers game. You know, ask somebody a question, and if they don't answer it they have to take a drink. Over the course of the game I grew progressively more frustrated with the answers I was getting. I was angling pretty heavily at darker, heaver questions than the rest of the group, and a lot of the answers I was getting were flippant or "I dunno".* Finally, when it came to my last question, I turned to the person across from me and asked "What's the hardest question someone can ask you, not because of what you'd have to admit to them but because of what you'd have to admit yourself?"

At which point he mocked me and said that if there was any such question, his natural curiosity would mean he'd want to answer it anyway. The question, to him, was intrinsically stupid. So naturally the rest of this post will be me trying to argue that it isn't.

Like it or not, everybody is delusional. If you believe you aren't then you've gone straight past 'deluded' and into 'crazy'. Anything you believe pragmatically as opposed to empirically is a delusion, and there are a LOT of those. "I am destined for greatness." "My ethical system is the best one." "Grad school will be worth it." Even though the claim is tenuous or even outright false (like a/theism to theists/atheists), what matters is that it affects you. And it doesn't necessarily have to be negative- it often isn't. Maybe you're getting motivation, or courage, or even just comfort. What's important is that you're getting something at the cost of truth.

Maintaining delusions is a delicate balancing act. Moreso for college students, who have both the opportunity and temptation to break them. We are drawn to the truth, but truth is fatal to happy lies. It's possible to have both the truth and the lie, building a convoluted bridge between them. But that bridge is itself a delusion, and just as vulnerable to the truth. Easier to refuse to believe part of the truth, just enough so that we can keep our toolbox. It's not pleasant, but we have to function somehow.

Now some people would argue that any delusion is inherently less useful than the truth, and discarding them will eventually put you in a better place. I don't like this argument. There are definitely some cases where the truth sets you free. "I am inherently better than {racial group}" is a good one. Whatever comfort that provides you does not make up for your terribleness, and the truth can only help you. But all delusions? No. Belief can move mountains. We know this. To say otherwise is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. Sometimes the truth can hurt you. Deciding when it won't is what makes it hard.

This brings us back to our original question. The hardest question you can ask yourself is a question about whether a cherished belief is a delusion. And if it is, whether to build the labyrinth of self-deception or give up a meaningful part of you. Whether to reject the ugly truth or the beautiful lie.

Sounds like a tough question to me.

*Yeah, I know that most people don't like playing this way. I'll admit it was a bit of a faux pas.**

**A lot of a faux pas.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Broken Bikes

I often talk about how experience is the most important thing ever for self-direction. To take it a little out of the realm of theory, I want to share a recent experience that I think will help me down the line.

Last Friday was supposed to be a pretty exciting day. Right after work I was going to be doing a huge bike ride, followed by a Blues dance at 8. Given the rest of the week being bad for various reasons, I was seriously looking forward to everything.

I got out of work and immediately biked over the meeting point. six of my other friends were there, and we set off with everybody else. Then, about ten minutes after we start, my front brake snaps. I immediately pull off the street and get down to fix it.

One problem: I don't know anything about bikes. I can change a tire and unjam a gear, but that's about it. I spend two hours staring and tinkering with the bike, trying to figure out what the heck is going on. To make matters worse the only tool I have is a wrench. Oh, and my false tooth falls out halfway through. That hurts a bit.

After finally working out how to fix the bike, I manage to get the brakes half working. I need special tools or two extra people in order to get them proper. It's already 8:00 now and I'm missing the dance. I try to find it, but because I'm far from the biking stop point I'm a little lost. I get more lost trying to find it, and by 8:30 I give up and bike back to the city.

Okay, so what does this have to do with experience? The lessons I'm learning from this are:

1) If you're not prepared everything can change from "awesome" to "terrible" in the span of a few seconds, and 
2) How to fix a brake.

The second lesson is a little more immediately useful. Hey, it's a new skill. Friday was incredibly frustrating and stressful, but that's in the past now. If the same thing happens in the future, I'll be prepared to handle it. It's also now a lot more obvious to me that I need to know my bike inside and out, so that a similar problem doesn't floor me either.

The first lesson, though, is gonna take a little longer to internalize. I didn't even realize the brakes could snap like that. How do I prepare for the unknown? I think a better thing to take away is that even if things spiral out like this, it's always recoverable. It could take a few hours to get back on track, but at least I will get back on track, and I'll learn something out of it.

If you asked me before the ride "hey, do you want your brakes to snap and you learn how to fix them", I would say "hell no". If you asked me now "hey, do you want to have it so your brakes never snapped and you never learned how to fix them", I'd probably say "no" again, although I don't know how I'd handle the temptation.  I think that's a really interesting comment on how we make choices: even if we know something is better for us in the long run, and we'll be glad it happened once its over, we'll still refuse to choose it. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Fallacy of the Self

Normally I hate meta posts, but I had a really good one I wanted to talk about. Last night I was trying to write on the idea of of intelligence. You know, what is intelligence actually, why our standard methods of measuring it are really lame, etc. I was stumped on actually defining intelligence, though. Now, I normally map out thoughts on my mirrors, using a whiteboard marker to scrawl ideas. Very quickly most of it was covered in bad analogies and failed ideas. In a fit of inspiration, I erased everything and wrote the following:

"Intelligence is the ability to see your specific knowledge as part of a whole. The most intelligent man in the world can watch a Shakespeare play and through that gain a deeper understanding of mathematics."

Looked about right to me. I admired the definition for a bit, and then in another fit of inspiration wrote the following under it:

"My perception of intelligence is contingent on my fallacies of thought, which are contingent on my desire for the world to have a certain form. I desire the world's form to be that the qualities I idolize are the ones that define intelligence. Therefore, my meditation was to validate my beliefs and not to develop them."

Which is a little troubling to say the least. Understatement of the month right there. I try to figure out what I should want, and I decide what I should want is what I already want. While I wrote it specifically about how to think about intelligence, it's actually a pretty general claim. Does being obsessed with self-improvement make it any more likely to happen, or is it just to convince myself that I don't have to change how I handle things? Let's take for example my post on sleep schedules. We have a specific thing I am trying to improve: better sleep. But does that make me a better person? Or do I just pretend it does it order to justify the energy sunk into it?

This may seem like a minor problem: does it matter why I do things if I do them anyway? Yes, for two reasons. First of all, I stopped the sleep schedule thing. I kept it in place for like a week before forgetting all about it. Maybe part of that was improper motives, the same way you're not going to study much if your only reason is "Mom said I should." So the second part of that question, "if I do them anyway", is a straw man. It does matter because I don't do them.

The second problem feels less important, but probably is significantly moreso. I have finite resources. I have to prioritize certain things over others. If I'm trying to justify changes over find them, then I'm prioritizing the "wrong" things. Like if I spent all my energy getting really good at badminton while ignoring my social ineptitude. That kind of thing. I once asked people for what I could do better and got some responses. Most of them I discounted as unimportant, unnecessary, or already had by me. Looking back, that was damn stupid of me. Really damn stupid.

This is what I'm calling The Fallacy of the Self. Existing in your own developmental world, what you should be doing and what you plan to do forever disconnected. It's an especially potent trap because introspection just gets you deeper- you're already in a state where you see your current path as the best path. Any option you take to escape the trap is coloured by the fact it was created while you were in the trap, which makes getting out a fairly difficult endeavor.

So how do we get out? The problem I run into is that, if this is true, anything I think of is going to be suspect. I want to say outside experience (as always) is the key, since it's the only way to leave your world. But is that really true, or do I just really want it to be true? I have no way of knowing that anything I say is going to be so horribly biased that it's useless or harmful.

Nonetheless, "I can't be sure I'm right, so I won't say anything" is a colossally stupid thing to say. So I'm sticking with my current solution: make sure you keep experiencing things and hope for the best. If any of you disagree, feel free to tear into me. Hell, even if you agree but want to disagree for the sake of it, do that too. If there's something out there that could change my mind, I want to know about it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Internet Discussions

One of the things I've been trying to do with this blog is foster discussion. Unfortunately, that hasn't really happened. I know for a fact that most of my readers haven't told me they read it, and the ones who do rarely leave comments.

I'm not unhappy that this hasn't been happening, because I wasn't optimistic about its chances chances in the first place. For one, this blog is fairly personal. While I'm transitioning from "this is what I'm doing" to "These are the ideas I'm trying to adopt", everything is still said in the context of 'me'. I'm drawing really heavily on my own ideas, actions, and interactions for this, and I think it makes it trickier to talk about it generally.

I'm starting to think that the Internet is very bad at fostering discussion, though. Something about the combination of personal distance, unlimited time to think, and the expectation to write completely coherent thoughts kinda kills it. But what I'm really looking for isn't just talking about one topic. I also want a discussion that spirals into tangents and eventually ends miles away from where it started. Like 95% of my best ideas happen in these discussions. Hell, I've already mentioned that 'Reason' and 'Elitism' came about from arguments. I'd probably be updating this blog a hundred times more often if I wasn't so agreeable.

When I think of 'online discussion', the image I get is a forum. Remember those? Built around specific interests. You get a few categories, somebody posts a topic, and everything throws on responses. Because active topics are thrown to the top people keep talking about it and new people keep joining in. Eventually everybody gets bored and moves on to other topics people posted, because every topic expects people talking about it.

Nowadays they've mostly been replaced by facebook, which is a lot worse at doing this. Statuses aren't really the best place for talking about things for a number of reasons (which probably are the same in blogs). Notes make things a bit easier, but I don't think anybody uses notes anymore. The old groups could-sorta-get-this-a-bit-kinda. The new groups not so much.

I'd try making a forum to see if it provides what I want, but the chances of getting enough people to consistently use it is... 0. Other possibilities include saying lots of inflammatory things on this blog (angry people write more) and posting terrible things to Facebook. I don't think I can do either without being a terrible person, though.

That's where my brain runs out of thinky-juice. How can we foster more discussion online in the context of our current networks? Primarily facebook, email, and blogs. It might just be a cultural problem, where we don't use these things to discuss because we never have. But I still think none of them are well suited for it. Maybe there's something fancy you could do with google docs? Some way to cope with the new groups? There's no easy solution I see.

Oh hey, it's almost like we should talk it over!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Unknown Unknowns

The school year is over. All of my fourth year friends have graduated. I saw a couple of them at the reception, but not many. I probably won't be seeing the rest of them again for a long time. Months, and in one person's case at least a year. The thing that bothers me is that I could have had a chance. A bunch of them were all doing a last dinner together. I could have said all of my goodbyes then rather than do it over the phone.

But I missed it. Because I had a train ticket home, and I couldn't miss the train. And I got the ticket before I found out about this dinner. If I'd have known I would have delayed my departure a day. As it is, I lost out on a very important thing to me.

When we do the 'wrong thing', sometimes it's because of a faulty judgment. But sometimes it's because we don't realize there are judgments we can make. How can you rationally choose between two options if you don't know you have the power to choose? How can you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an action if you don't know you have to weigh them? This is why I missed the dinner. I didn't realize that they'd want a last dinner before they all parted ways. I would have stayed if I knew it was happening. Does that make me irrational for leaving? No, it's a sad reminder of how a lack of information can completely destroy our ability to make good decisions.

The rational solution to this is to ensure that you have all of the information. But the kind we are dealing with is not the known unknowns, when you are aware there are options but have yet to find them. These are the unknown unknowns. You could reason with yourself for a hundred years and never realize the options are there, simply because realizing you have gaps in your knowledge requires outside information that you do not have. But more likely you'll never reason with yourself in the first place, because you don't realize you should.

But what I think is a thousand times worse is the information that you do have, but that you don't remember is relevant. Three hours into the train ride I remembered that Amtrak doesn't have a surcharge for changing your departures dates. I could have gone to that dinner after all. But I didn't.

I can cry about unknown unknowns all I want, but that doesn't get me any closer to coping with it. And we have to find a way of coping with it, if only so we can make the "right" choice more often. Thankfully, though, this is the kind of problem that solves itself. Every time we get burned by the unknown unknowns they're no longer invisible. You know to watch out for them in the future.

This is another good reason why we should have as many experiences and encounters as possible. It makes it more likely that you'll be hit by an unknown unknown in a situation where it doesn't hurt you too badly, so you're aware of it when it's actually important to be aware. And it means that the situations come up way more often, so you more quickly learn to deal with a wide range of unknown unknowns.

Looking back, I think I know what to call the knowledge of unknown unknowns. It's wisdom.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

People are People

I try to make an effort to keep in contact with people. Apparently this is a weird thing, because most of my friends don't do it.  I also make an effort to get in contact with people I don't really talk to. This is also a weird thing. Most people I know are more interested in letting friendships happen to them. They don't go out of their way to find more friends.

I don't need to do this. I already have many friends that I enjoy spending with, and more than a few very close ones. I have several reasons for keeping at it, though. Of course there's the joy of having new friends. And part of it is an addiction thing: I get a huge rush from meeting new people. It gives me energy.

Less obviously, it lets me expand my areas of experience. The more people you know the wider a social network you have, meaning the more likely you are to find people that differ radically from you. When you just let friendship happen, eventually your group homogenizes. If not in terms of race, socioeconomic class, etc, it's mentally. I have a couple of friendship groups that I'm tangent to. Over time they hivemind a little. Modes of thought unify. Good for closeness, perhaps, but not for empowerment. If you keep introducing new friends into the mix, you always have highly novel relationships. You also have access to modes and worldviews that are normally blocked by your upbringing. I have friends who could buy my family. I find it very difficult to try thinking things from that kind of perspective, but I would have found it absolutely impossible two years ago.

What I find most interesting, though, is how it affects my perception of people. One of the most important rules I've learned for social interactions is "people are people". It's so obviously simple to think of, but hideously difficult to think. Imagine walking down on the street, and a car stops to let you pass. Do you realize that in that car is a person? One who has had just as many, if not more experiences than you have? Or do you think of that person solely as the driver of the car? I'd bet the latter.

You can't recognize everybody around you as being a full-fledged person, because then your brain would overload and you would die. There's a difference, though, between 'not recognizing everybody' and 'not recognizing anybody'. First is necessary. Second is a problem. People are not Chinese Boxes. They aren't automata responding precisely to your input. We only see them that way (unconsciously or not) because we don't interact with them on a deep enough level.

This is why I'm so obsessed with talking to people. It's the only way I know of learning how to see them as people.