Rationality is Systematized Winning

Fol­lowup to: New­comb’s Prob­lem and Re­gret of Rationality

“Ra­tion­al­ists should win,” I said, and I may have to stop say­ing it, for it seems to con­vey some­thing other than what I meant by it.

Where did the phrase come from origi­nally? From con­sid­er­ing such cases as New­comb’s Prob­lem: The su­per­be­ing Omega sets forth be­fore you two boxes, a trans­par­ent box A con­tain­ing $1000 (or the equiv­a­lent in ma­te­rial wealth), and an opaque box B that con­tains ei­ther $1,000,000 or noth­ing. Omega tells you that It has already put $1M in box B if and only if It pre­dicts that you will take only box B, leav­ing box A be­hind. Omega has played this game many times be­fore, and has been right 99 times out of 100. Do you take both boxes, or only box B?

A com­mon po­si­tion—in fact, the main­stream/​dom­i­nant po­si­tion in mod­ern philos­o­phy and de­ci­sion the­ory—is that the only rea­son­able course is to take both boxes; Omega has already made Its de­ci­sion and gone, and so your ac­tion can­not af­fect the con­tents of the box in any way (they ar­gue). Now, it so hap­pens that cer­tain types of un­rea­son­able in­di­vi­d­u­als are re­warded by Omega—who moves even be­fore they make their de­ci­sions—but this in no way changes the con­clu­sion that the only rea­son­able course is to take both boxes, since tak­ing both boxes makes you $1000 richer re­gard­less of the un­chang­ing and un­change­able con­tents of box B.

And this is the sort of think­ing that I in­tended to re­ject by say­ing, “Ra­tion­al­ists should win!

Said Miyamoto Musashi: “The pri­mary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your in­ten­tion to cut the en­emy, what­ever the means. When­ever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the en­emy’s cut­ting sword, you must cut the en­emy in the same move­ment. It is es­sen­tial to at­tain this. If you think only of hit­ting, spring­ing, strik­ing or touch­ing the en­emy, you will not be able ac­tu­ally to cut him.”

Said I: “If you fail to achieve a cor­rect an­swer, it is fu­tile to protest that you acted with pro­pri­ety.”

This is the dis­tinc­tion I had hoped to con­vey by say­ing, “Ra­tion­al­ists should win!

There is a meme which says that a cer­tain rit­ual of cog­ni­tion is the paragon of rea­son­able­ness and so defines what the rea­son­able peo­ple do. But alas, the rea­son­able peo­ple of­ten get their butts handed to them by the un­rea­son­able ones, be­cause the uni­verse isn’t always rea­son­able. Rea­son is just a way of do­ing things, not nec­es­sar­ily the most formidable; it is how pro­fes­sors talk to each other in de­bate halls, which some­times works, and some­times doesn’t. If a hoard of bar­bar­ians at­tacks the de­bate hall, the truly pru­dent and flex­ible agent will aban­don rea­son­able­ness.

No. If the “ir­ra­tional” agent is out­com­pet­ing you on a sys­tem­atic and pre­dictable ba­sis, then it is time to re­con­sider what you think is “ra­tio­nal”.

For I do fear that a “ra­tio­nal­ist” will clutch to them­selves the rit­ual of cog­ni­tion they have been taught, as loss af­ter loss piles up, con­sol­ing them­selves: “I have be­haved vir­tu­ously, I have been so rea­son­able, it’s just this awful un­fair uni­verse that doesn’t give me what I de­serve. The oth­ers are cheat­ing by not do­ing it the ra­tio­nal way, that’s how they got ahead of me.”

It is this that I in­tended to guard against by say­ing: “Ra­tion­al­ists should win!” Not whine, win. If you keep on los­ing, per­haps you are do­ing some­thing wrong. Do not con­sole your­self about how you were so won­der­fully ra­tio­nal in the course of los­ing. That is not how things are sup­posed to go. It is not the Art that fails, but you who fails to grasp the Art.

Like­wise in the realm of epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity, if you find your­self think­ing that the rea­son­able be­lief is X (be­cause a ma­jor­ity of mod­ern hu­mans seem to be­lieve X, or some­thing that sounds similarly ap­peal­ing) and yet the world it­self is ob­vi­ously Y.

But peo­ple do seem to be tak­ing this in some other sense than I meant it—as though any per­son who de­clared them­selves a ra­tio­nal­ist would in that mo­ment be in­vested with an in­vin­cible spirit that en­abled them to ob­tain all things with­out effort and with­out over­com­ing dis­ad­van­tages, or some­thing, I don’t know.

Maybe there is an al­ter­na­tive phrase to be found again in Musashi, who said: “The Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of win­ning, what­ever the weapon and what­ever its size.”

“Ra­tion­al­ity is the spirit of win­ning”? “Ra­tion­al­ity is the Way of win­ning”? “Ra­tion­al­ity is sys­tem­atized win­ning”? If you have a bet­ter sug­ges­tion, post it in the com­ments.