Glide #1: Learning Rationality from Absurdity

Glide Meditation #1: A Reflection on “The Simple Truth”

My first exposure to “The Simple Truth”, the first entry in the original collection of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Sequences, was actually a dramatic reading I found on YouTube. I had intended to read it during my lunch break at work, but Yudkowsky’s personal website, where that particular entry is hosted, is blocked by my employer’s Internet filter. Now that I’ve gone back and actually read the essay in its original medium, I feel like that particular turn of events is rather serendipitous; indeed, I don’t think this essay would have had nearly the same impact for me if had only read it. The fact that essay itself is written as a dialogue naturally lends itself to an audio adaptation, and that in turn made it far more accessible.

As I sat and listened to Yudkowsky’s mental constructs debate over the details of the sheep-counting device, my emotional arc began at mild confusion (Yudkowsky had posited a world without the concept of counting without explicitly stating so), morphed into surprisingly intense frustration for most of the duration (the extent to which Mark must be obtuse in order for the dialogue to make its intended point truly must read/​heard to be believed), and ended at resigned amusement (I think I understood it, and the ending was humorous, but I questioned whether sitting through such a frustrating ordeal was ultimately worth it).

On its surface, “The Simple Truth” reads like an absurdist one-act play, and its style of humor is indeed very much reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. For me, The Shepherd, Autrey, and Mark exhibit various methods of reasoning and behavior that impede the effective practice of the art of inquiry and discerning truth, with Inspector Darwin serving via prosopopoeia as the voice of reality. Through their actions, the former three characters highlight via contrast specific ideals of rational thought and effective communication, though I strongly suspect this may not be their intended interpretation. Therefore, as we move forward through these essays (both his and mine), let us accept as an axiom Yudkowsky’s temporary death.

My (admittedly sparse) framework thus established, what is the significance these characters?

Mark presupposes his worldview, though what that worldview is seems to change from moment to moment, and not in the way prescribed by Bayesian rationality. He attempts to shoehorn each new piece of information into that worldview, and follows a line of questioning motivated primarily by confirmation bias, where he attempts to obtain new information that will reinforce whatever conclusion he just drew. Leaving aside any commentary on Bayesian rationality, Mark’s example highlights the importance of asking the right questions, or phrased more elegantly, questioning effectively. It is not enough to simply ask questions; one must strive to ask the most effective questions: questions that, when answered satisfactorily, bring the asker closer to the truth than any other possible question.

Autrey demonstrates both the shortcomings of blind faith and, through his inability to do so, the importance of generalization. He knows the mechanics of the sheep tracker, but only as they apply to this specific formulation of the sheep tracker, and he is unable to extrapolate from his knowledge and apply it elsewhere. Further, Autrey also demonstrates a profound lack of curiosity, and could even be described as being content in his ignorance. His example highlights the importance of knowing explanations and processes, rather than individual facts or observations. Put simply, Autrey demonstrates the results of never asking “Why?”

Finally, The Shepherd’s characterization seems to be something akin to a dispassionate sage or guru, dispensing knowledge only when it is directly asked for, and only answering questions on their lowest and most literal level. I’m reminded of Master Wq from the Vim Koans, providing technically correct but otherwise rather unhelpful answers. The most frustrating part of listening to audio adaptation was knowing that at any point, The Shepherd could resolve the matter entirely by simply explaining his process, rather than stand by and allow Mark and Autrey to talk in circles. For me, The Shepherd’s example illustrates the importance of answering the spirit of the question, rather than the letter. Of course, answering questions in this way also requires empathy, another thing the Shepherd seems to lack, so perhaps this interpretation works better than I had originally thought.

Looking back on what I’ve written here, it would seem that I’ve constructed some sort of rationality morality tale about the pursuit of truth. I suppose this is what one gets when you engage with this essay as the absurdist narrative it adopts as its veneer, rather than as the rationalist proof-of-concept it attempts to be at its core.