Month: February 2014

Leveling up, Rationally

I read something incredible, in the form of a Harry Potter fan fiction. I’m not joking and it was amazing. Reading it made me think more than I ever have about my own biases, and the real point of learning.

I will certainly write more about this line of thinking in the future, but here are some initial thoughts.

  1. Rules of society are arbitrary.
  2. People find it nearly impossible to think critically about the roles they have assigned themselves. For example, thinking of yourself as being a ‘responsible’ person may prevent you from acting in a rational way (ie telling a group to follow some safety procedures that you disagree with).
  3. There is such a thing as truth, and it the purpose of science to uncover that truth.
  4. The truth does not care what you think of it. It only exists. So to really be a scientist, you have to ignore what you wish was the truth. Because we are emotional creatures that evolved to ally with our tribe, this is incredibly hard.
  5. Do not train your brain to punish yourself for going through bad ideas. Doing so will train yourself to never think of anything again. You must reward yourself for solving puzzles, but also taking the ‘failure’ steps that will lead to a solved problem.
  6. To know how to do something, you must be practicing it. This is true for everything.
  7. Humans are optimistic about everything. How long something will take, probable outcomes of every kind. It is almost impossible to over-correct in your pessimism, so always try. At the very least, you will get places on time.
  8. An important problem should be thought about for FIVE FULL MINUTES.
  9. For a complicated problem, if you are charged with solving it in a group, do not first suggest a solution. If you do that, people will take sides and dig in rhetorically, never able to convince each other. Talk about the problem for as long as you can before settling on a solution.
  10. If you are arguing with someone, consider quietly whether it is possible for them to ever convince you. Ask others that of your argument as well.
  11. Direct quote from the Virtues of Rationality:  “Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider.”
 I have one critique of this work so far, which is that we may not be smart enough to be truly rational. Actually, it may not be that we’re not smart enough, that’s not quite right. Instead, it’s that we have too much of our brainpower channelled into the unglamourous work of understanding emotions and being social animals. Of course that is much harder computation than rationality, but we are biased against valuing it as it comes so easily to us. (This is an idea I got from reading about autistic savantism. We think of these neuro-atypical people as having incredible genius power, but in fact they have brain impairment that lets them access the computational power of our brains without the higher level filtering. As Allan Snyder writes, “savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels…Unlike the healthy mind, which has inbuilt expectations of the world (internal order), the autistic mind must simplify the world by adopting strict routines (external order).“). To be truly rational, you may have to ignore emotional knowledge, which we are evolved to have. A tough ask.
Really, read the fanfic.
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