Leave a Line of Retreat

“When you sur­round the en­emy
Always al­low them an es­cape route.
They must see that there is
An al­ter­na­tive to death.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Cloud Hands edition

“Don’t raise the pres­sure, lower the wall.”
—Lois McMaster Bu­jold, Komarr

Last night I hap­pened to be con­vers­ing with a non­ra­tional­ist who had some­how wan­dered into a lo­cal ra­tio­nal­ists’ gath­er­ing. She had just de­clared (a) her be­lief in souls and (b) that she didn’t be­lieve in cry­on­ics be­cause she be­lieved the soul wouldn’t stay with the frozen body. I asked, “But how do you know that?” From the con­fu­sion that flashed on her face, it was pretty clear that this ques­tion had never oc­curred to her. I don’t say this in a bad way—she seemed like a nice per­son with ab­solutely no train­ing in ra­tio­nal­ity, just like most of the rest of the hu­man species. I re­ally need to write that book.

Most of the en­su­ing con­ver­sa­tion was on items already cov­ered on Over­com­ing Bias—if you’re re­ally cu­ri­ous about some­thing, you prob­a­bly can figure out a good way to test it; try to at­tain ac­cu­rate be­liefs first and then let your emo­tions flow from that—that sort of thing. But the con­ver­sa­tion re­minded me of one no­tion I haven’t cov­ered here yet:

“Make sure,” I sug­gested to her, “that you vi­su­al­ize what the world would be like if there are no souls, and what you would do about that. Don’t think about all the rea­sons that it can’t be that way, just ac­cept it as a premise and then vi­su­al­ize the con­se­quences. So that you’ll think, ‘Well, if there are no souls, I can just sign up for cry­on­ics’, or ‘If there is no God, I can just go on be­ing moral any­way,’ rather than it be­ing too hor­rify­ing to face. As a mat­ter of self-re­spect you should try to be­lieve the truth no mat­ter how un­com­fortable it is, like I said be­fore; but as a mat­ter of hu­man na­ture, it helps to make a be­lief less un­com­fortable, be­fore you try to eval­u­ate the ev­i­dence for it.”

The prin­ci­ple be­hind the tech­nique is sim­ple: As Sun Tzu ad­vises you to do with your en­e­mies, you must do with your­self—leave your­self a line of re­treat, so that you will have less trou­ble re­treat­ing. The prospect of los­ing your job, say, may seem a lot more scary when you can’t even bear to think about it, than af­ter you have calcu­lated ex­actly how long your sav­ings will last, and checked the job mar­ket in your area, and oth­er­wise planned out ex­actly what to do next. Only then will you be ready to fairly as­sess the prob­a­bil­ity of keep­ing your job in the planned lay­offs next month. Be a true cow­ard, and plan out your re­treat in de­tail—vi­su­al­ize ev­ery step—prefer­ably be­fore you first come to the bat­tlefield.

The hope is that it takes less courage to vi­su­al­ize an un­com­fortable state of af­fairs as a thought ex­per­i­ment, than to con­sider how likely it is to be true. But then af­ter you do the former, it be­comes eas­ier to do the lat­ter.

Re­mem­ber that Bayesi­anism is pre­cise—even if a scary propo­si­tion re­ally should seem un­likely, it’s still im­por­tant to count up all the ev­i­dence, for and against, ex­actly fairly, to ar­rive at the ra­tio­nal quan­ti­ta­tive prob­a­bil­ity. Vi­su­al­iz­ing a scary be­lief does not mean ad­mit­ting that you think, deep down, it’s prob­a­bly true. You can vi­su­al­ize a scary be­lief on gen­eral prin­ci­ples of good men­tal house­keep­ing. “The thought you can­not think con­trols you more than thoughts you speak aloud”—this hap­pens even if the un­think­able thought is false!

The leave-a-line-of-re­treat tech­nique does re­quire a cer­tain min­i­mum of self-hon­esty to use cor­rectly.

For a start: You must at least be able to ad­mit to your­self which ideas scare you, and which ideas you are at­tached to. But this is a sub­stan­tially less difficult test than fairly count­ing the ev­i­dence for an idea that scares you. Does it help if I say that I have oc­ca­sion to use this tech­nique my­self? A ra­tio­nal­ist does not re­ject all emo­tion, af­ter all. There are ideas which scare me, yet I still be­lieve to be false. There are ideas to which I know I am at­tached, yet I still be­lieve to be true. But I still plan my re­treats, not be­cause I’m plan­ning to re­treat, but be­cause plan­ning my re­treat in ad­vance helps me think about the prob­lem with­out at­tach­ment.

But greater test of self-hon­esty is to re­ally ac­cept the un­com­fortable propo­si­tion as a premise, and figure out how you would re­ally deal with it. When we’re faced with an un­com­fortable idea, our first im­pulse is nat­u­rally to think of all the rea­sons why it can’t pos­si­bly be so. And so you will en­counter a cer­tain amount of psy­cholog­i­cal re­sis­tance in your­self, if you try to vi­su­al­ize ex­actly how the world would be, and what you would do about it, if My-Most-Pre­cious-Belief were false, or My-Most-Feared-Belief were true.

Think of all the peo­ple who say that, with­out God, moral­ity was im­pos­si­ble. (And yes, this topic did come up in the con­ver­sa­tion; so I am not offer­ing a straw­man.) If the­ists could vi­su­al­ize their real re­ac­tion to be­liev­ing as a fact that God did not ex­ist, they could re­al­ize that, no, they wouldn’t go around slaugh­ter­ing ba­bies. They could re­al­ize that athe­ists are re­act­ing to the nonex­is­tence of God in pretty much the way they them­selves would, if they came to be­lieve that. I say this, to show that it is a con­sid­er­able challenge to vi­su­al­ize the way you re­ally would re­act, to be­liev­ing the op­po­site of a tightly held be­lief.

Plus it’s always coun­ter­in­tu­itive to re­al­ize that, yes, peo­ple do get over things. Newly minted quadriplegics are not as sad as they ex­pect to be six months later, etc. It can be equally coun­ter­in­tu­itive to re­al­ize that if the scary be­lief turned out to be true, you would come to terms with it some­how. Quadriplegics deal, and so would you.

See also the Li­tany of Gendlin and the Li­tany of Tarski. What is true is already so; own­ing up to it doesn’t make it worse. You shouldn’t be afraid to just vi­su­al­ize a world you fear. If that world is already ac­tual, vi­su­al­iz­ing it won’t make it worse; and if it is not ac­tual, vi­su­al­iz­ing it will do no harm. And re­mem­ber, as you vi­su­al­ize, that if the scary things you’re imag­in­ing re­ally are true—which they may not be!—then you would, in­deed, want to be­lieve it, and you should vi­su­al­ize that too; not be­liev­ing wouldn’t help you.

How many re­li­gious peo­ple would re­tain their be­lief in God, if they could ac­cu­rately vi­su­al­ize that hy­po­thet­i­cal world in which there was no God and they them­selves have be­come athe­ists?

Leav­ing a line of re­treat is a pow­er­ful tech­nique, but it’s not easy. Hon­est vi­su­al­iza­tion doesn’t take as much effort as ad­mit­ting out­right that God doesn’t ex­ist, but it does take an effort.

(Meta note: I’m post­ing this on the ad­vice that I should break up long se­quences of mathy posts with non-mathy posts. (I was ac­tu­ally ad­vised to post some­thing “fun”, but I’d rather not—it feels like I have too much im­por­tant ma­te­rial to cover in the next cou­ple of months.) If any­one thinks that I should have, in­stead, gone ahead and posted the next item in the in­for­ma­tion-the­ory se­quence rather than break­ing it up; or, al­ter­na­tively, thinks that this non-mathy post came as a wel­come change; then I am in­ter­ested in hear­ing from you in the com­ments.)