Singlethink

I re­mem­ber the ex­act mo­ment when I be­gan my jour­ney as a ra­tio­nal­ist.

It was not while read­ing Surely You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man or any ex­ist­ing work upon ra­tio­nal­ity; for these I sim­ply ac­cepted as ob­vi­ous. The jour­ney be­gins when you see a great flaw in your ex­ist­ing art, and dis­cover a drive to im­prove, to cre­ate new skills be­yond the helpful but in­ad­e­quate ones you found in books.

In the last mo­ments of my first life, I was fif­teen years old, and re­hears­ing a pleas­antly self-righ­teous mem­ory of a time when I was much younger. My mem­o­ries this far back are vague; I have a men­tal image, but I don’t re­mem­ber how old I was ex­actly. I think I was six or seven, and that the origi­nal event hap­pened dur­ing sum­mer camp.

What hap­pened origi­nally was that a camp coun­selor, a teenage male, got us much younger boys to form a line, and pro­posed the fol­low­ing game: the boy at the end of the line would crawl through our legs, and we would spank him as he went past, and then it would be the turn of the next eight-year-old boy at the end of the line. (Maybe it’s just that I’ve lost my youth­ful in­no­cence, but I can’t help but won­der . . .) I re­fused to play this game, and was told to go sit in the cor­ner.

This mem­ory—of re­fus­ing to spank and be spanked—came to sym­bol­ize to me that even at this very early age I had re­fused to take joy in hurt­ing oth­ers. That I would not pur­chase a spank on an­other’s butt, at the price of a spank on my own; would not pay in hurt for the op­por­tu­nity to in­flict hurt. I had re­fused to play a nega­tive-sum game.

And then, at the age of fif­teen, I sud­denly re­al­ized that it wasn’t true. I hadn’t re­fused out of a prin­ci­pled stand against nega­tive-sum games. I found out about the Pri­soner’s Dilemma pretty early in life, but not at the age of seven. I’d re­fused sim­ply be­cause I didn’t want to get hurt, and stand­ing in the cor­ner was an ac­cept­able price to pay for not get­ting hurt.

More im­por­tantly, I re­al­ized that I had always known this—that the real mem­ory had always been lurk­ing in a cor­ner of my mind, my men­tal eye glanc­ing at it for a frac­tion of a sec­ond and then look­ing away.

In my very first step along the Way, I caught the feel­ing—gen­er­al­ized over the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience—and said, “So that’s what it feels like to shove an un­wanted truth into the cor­ner of my mind! Now I’m go­ing to no­tice ev­ery time I do that, and clean out all my cor­ners!”

This dis­ci­pline I named sin­gle­think, af­ter Or­well’s dou­ble­think. In dou­ble­think, you for­get, and then for­get you have for­got­ten. In sin­gle­think, you no­tice you are for­get­ting, and then you re­mem­ber. You hold only a sin­gle non-con­tra­dic­tory thought in your mind at once.

“Sin­gle­think” was the first new ra­tio­nal­ist skill I cre­ated, which I had not read about in books. I doubt that it is origi­nal in the sense of aca­demic pri­or­ity, but this is thank­fully not re­quired.

Oh, and my fif­teen-year-old self liked to name things.

The ter­rify­ing depths of the con­fir­ma­tion bias go on and on. Not for­ever, for the brain is of finite com­plex­ity, but long enough that it feels like for­ever. You keep on dis­cov­er­ing (or read­ing about) new mechanisms by which your brain shoves things out of the way.

But my young self swept out quite a few cor­ners with that first broom.