A Personal Rationality Wishlist

Link post

At one point I com­plied a list of co­nun­drums re­lat­ing to ra­tio­nal­ity that come up in my life. In­stead of solv­ing them, I thought I’d write up a se­lec­tion of them, since that’s eas­ier and maybe other peo­ple will solve them.

Pu­n­ish­ing hon­esty vs no punishment

In some cases, you might want peo­ple to com­ply with some rule that they might oth­er­wise wish to break, but the only way to check if they have com­plied is to ask them and hope that they’re hon­est (or per­haps there’s an­other, much more ex­pen­sive, way to check). Ex­am­ples:

  • A sperm bank might only want donors with­out con­gen­i­tal ab­nor­mal­ities that they might not be able to eas­ily ob­serve or test for.

  • I might not want my house­mates to go into my room and look at all my stuff when I’m not there.

There’s a dilemma: how should one en­force such a rule? If you just ask peo­ple, and pun­ish them if they say that they didn’t com­ply, then you’re in­cen­tivis­ing peo­ple to lie to you. But if you don’t ask, the rule doesn’t get en­forced. Ab­stractly, it seems like you just can’t en­force such a rule at all, but it seems to me that of­ten peo­ple are able to be hon­est in the face of pun­ish­ment, so not all hope is lost. How should I think about these situ­a­tions? In prac­tice, how should I de­cide the en­force­ment mechanism?

Ac­cord­ing to David Fried­man’s re­cent book on le­gal sys­tems, in saga-pe­riod Ice­land, there was a much larger penalty for kil­ling some­body if you failed to con­fess as soon as was prac­ti­cal. This sug­gests one solu­tion: es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of dis­cov­ery of vi­o­la­tion of a rule con­di­tioned on the vi­o­later be­ing dishon­est, and set the pun­ish­ment of that high enough that it’s worth it for rule vi­o­laters to be hon­est. But this leaves open the ques­tion of how in prac­tice to es­ti­mate this prob­a­bil­ity, calcu­late the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment level, and how much effort to put into de­tec­tion of rule vi­o­la­tions when no­body has con­fessed to a vi­o­la­tion.

‘The anime thing’

Once, a friend of mine ob­served that he couldn’t talk about how he didn’t like anime with­out a bunch of peo­ple rush­ing in to tell him that anime was ac­tu­ally good and recom­mend­ing anime for him to watch, even when he ex­plic­itly asked them not to. Similarly, an­other friend of mine went to a cod­ing boot­camp, only to dis­cover that she in­tensely dis­liked cod­ing, and would ba­si­cally be un­able to do it as a ca­reer, caus­ing her to de­cide to switch to her pre­vi­ous worse-pay­ing job. When she talked about this, of­ten other peo­ple would sug­gest cod­ing jobs for her to take, or re­mind her that cod­ing pays much bet­ter than her other op­tions.

I think that the re­sponses that my friends re­ceived are in­stances of the same phe­nomenon, which I’ll call ‘the anime thing’ (since I came across the anime ex­am­ple first, and don’t have bet­ter name). Why does the anime thing hap­pen? In what other situ­a­tions might it hap­pen? If one wanted it to not hap­pen, how would one go about that?

When and how to in­crease neuroticism

Many peo­ple have ad­vice on how to be­come more re­laxed, calm, and happy. But pre­sum­ably it’s pos­si­ble to be too re­laxed, calm, and/​or happy, and one should in­stead be anx­ious, an­gry, and/​or sad. How can I tell when this is the case, and what should I do to in­crease my neu­roti­cism in-the-mo­ment? Or could it re­ally be true that hu­mans are uni­ver­sally bi­ased to­wards feel­ing un­pleas­ant emo­tions?

Virtue of bicycles

It seems to me that bi­cy­cles are an un­usu­ally won­der­ful de­vice.

  • You can just look at them with your eyes, think a lit­tle, and then you’ll know ba­si­cally how they work.

  • They are very effi­cient in con­vert­ing en­ergy into for­ward mo­tion.

  • By mak­ing trans­porta­tion eas­ier, they make peo­ple more free in one of the most con­crete ways pos­si­ble.

  • They let you go very fast, while still be­ing in full con­tact with the air and ground.

I want more of that in my life. How should I get it? Should I be de­riv­ing any deep les­sons from how great bi­cy­cles are?

Does my sleepy self know whether I should be sleep­ing?

When I’ve just wo­ken up from sleep­ing, of­ten I’ll have a strong im­pres­sion that it would be a good idea to go back to sleep, or at least stay in bed and day­dream. It seems plau­si­ble that this is a bad idea—as Mar­cus Aure­lius re­minded him­self in his jour­nal:

At dawn, when you have trou­ble get­ting out of bed, tell your­self: “I have to go to work—as a hu­man be­ing. What do I have to com­plain of, if I’m go­ing to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was cre­ated for? To hud­dle un­der the blan­kets and stay warm?”

So you were born to feel “nice”? In­stead of do­ing things and ex­pe­rienc­ing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spi­ders and bees go­ing about their in­di­vi­d­ual tasks, putting the world in or­der, as best they can? And you’re not will­ing to do your job as a hu­man be­ing? Why aren’t you run­ning to do what your na­ture de­mands?

You don’t love your­self enough. Or you’d love your na­ture too, and what it de­mands of you.

On the other hand, I gather that sleep is in fact im­por­tant for us biolog­i­cal hu­mans. And prob­a­bly the way my body lets me know that is by mak­ing me sleepy.

On the third hand, I just woke up of my own ac­cord (I rarely per­ceive my wak­ing up as be­ing due to light or sound), which you’d think would be a sign that now would be a good time to be awake. I know my wak­ing self can be wrong about whether or not I should be awake, why should my sleep­ing self be all that differ­ent? Also, when I’ve just wo­ken up, I am in some im­por­tant senses less in­tel­li­gent than liter­ally any other wak­ing mo­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately, think­ing hard about this prob­lem in the mo­ment makes sleep more difficult, mean­ing that a policy-level solu­tion is nec­es­sary. The solu­tion is likely ‘try both ways for a week, see how you do on a cog­ni­tive bat­tery’, but it would be nice to rea­son the an­swer from first prin­ci­ples.