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 responses to “The Virtues of Rationality”

  1. 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. You don’t want to get that crowd started about cryonics either.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.