Zen and the Art of Rationality

Fol­lowup to: Effortless Technique

No one would mis­take my writ­ings for an­cient Eastern wis­dom. Suc­cess­fully or not, I as­pire to clearly set forth the rea­son­ing, an­tecedent as­sump­tions, and prag­matic use of my con­clu­sions. Suc­cess­fully or not, I as­pire to cut my pro­pos­als into mod­u­lar pieces, so that a user can re­ject one mis­take with­out de­stroy­ing the whole. This stan­dard of writ­ing is in­her­ited from the an­cient tra­di­tions of tech­ni­cal think­ing, not the an­cient tra­di­tions of Zen.

No one would mis­take my writ­ings for an­cient Eastern wis­dom. My goals are not the goals of Bud­dha or Lao Tse. Feel­ing Ra­tional sug­gested that emo­tions should fol­low from be­liefs but not be­liefs fol­low from emo­tions: the ideal is to free your­self of all at­tach­ment to preferred con­clu­sions about re­al­ity, ar­rive at your be­liefs of fact by weigh­ing the ev­i­dence with­out prej­u­dice, and then feel fully what­ever emo­tions fol­low from these be­liefs-of-fact. In stereo­typ­i­cal Eastern philos­o­phy, you are sup­posed to free your­self of all at­tach­ments, not just at­tach­ment to be­liefs-of-fact apart from ev­i­dence; you are sup­posed to re­lin­quish all de­sire. Yes, I know it’s more com­pli­cated than that—but still, their goals are not mine.

And yet it of­times seems to me that my thoughts are ex­pressed in con­cep­tual lan­guage that owes a great deal to the in­spira­tion of Eastern philos­o­phy. “Free your­self of at­tach­ments to think­ing that the uni­verse is one way or an­other: Ar­rive at your pic­ture of the world with­out prej­u­dice, and then feel fully whichever feel­ings arise from this pic­ture. Let your emo­tions flow from your be­liefs, not the other way around.” It’s not a Bud­dhist con­clu­sion, but the lan­guage owes a nod in the di­rec­tion of Bud­dhism. Even if a Bud­dhist teacher would ve­he­mently dis­agree, they might still grasp im­me­di­ately what was be­ing pro­posed. Grasp it more clearly, per­haps, than an old-school (i.e. pre-Bayesian) Western ra­tio­nal­ist.

No one would mis­take my writ­ings for an­cient Eastern wis­dom. And this is well, be­cause I can’t stand peo­ple who try to pass off their ideas as an­cient wis­dom. As if that were a recom­men­da­tion! The fifth-cen­tury Chi­nese philoso­pher Xiaoguang Li ob­served that an­cient civ­i­liza­tions are revered, and yet an­cient civ­i­liza­tions are not wise like ven­er­a­ble hu­man el­ders are wise. A civ­i­liza­tion fur­ther back in time is younger, not older. The cur­rent civ­i­liza­tion is always the se­nior, be­cause the pre­sent en­joys a longer his­tory than the past. In­ci­den­tally, does it change your opinion if I tell you that Xiaoguang “Mike” Li is ac­tu­ally a friend of mine who lives in the Bay Area?

So be it far from me to spray-paint my work with a patina of ven­er­a­bil­ity. And yet in too many ways to list here, my work owes a nod in the di­rec­tion of Bud­dhism, Tao­ism, Zen—and even Bushido. Yes, Bushido! See e.g. the Musashi quotes in the Twelve Virtues of Ra­tion­al­ity. What­ever their other flaws, samu­rai had a deep grasp of the virtue of perfec­tion­ism as a life-prin­ci­ple. To Western­ers, “perfec­tion­ism” refers to some­thing that seems like work, makes peo­ple un­happy, and causes soft­ware to ship late.

Of the virtue of cu­ri­os­ity, I said: “A burn­ing itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pur­sue truth.” Here is the con­cep­tual lan­guage—but not the propo­si­tional state­ments—of Lao Tse ad­mon­ish­ing, “Stop talk­ing about moral­ity and righ­teous­ness, and peo­ple will re­gain the love of their fel­lows.” Peo­ple are not nat­u­rally ra­tio­nal—but you sure can trip over your own feet by think­ing too much about “ra­tio­nal­ity” in­stead of pay­ing at­ten­tion to the ob­vi­ous ev­i­dence. Learned virtues are pow­er­ful but dan­ger­ous; they have many de­grees of free­dom for er­ror.

Western re­li­gions de­mand sub­mis­sion to God, bended knee and bowed neck. Many Chris­tian saints achieved their can­on­iza­tion by go­ing to great lengths of vol­un­tary suffer­ing. You obey God’s pre­cepts out of du­tiful moral­ity and rev­er­ence, on penalty of judg­ment and damna­tion. Such con­cepts have con­tam­i­nated Eastern street re­li­gions as well, of course. But so far as Eastern re­li­gious philos­o­phy is con­cerned, one speaks of har­mony with the Tao, rather than sub­mit­ting to the Tao.

When I ask my­self whether ra­tio­nal­ity seems more like sub­mit­ting to the com­mands of Bayes, or mov­ing in har­mony with the Bayes, the lat­ter seems far closer to the mark. By plac­ing your­self in cor­re­spon­dence with the Bayes, you wield the power of the Bayes. If you mis­step in the dance (ac­ci­den­tally or de­liber­ately), there is no judge who damns you, or any di­v­ine watcher dis­ap­pointed in you: You have failed your­self. The laws of prob­a­bil­ity the­ory still gov­ern you, en­tirely in­differ­ent to your sub­mis­sion or defi­ance. The con­se­quences of your dishar­mony will oc­cur to you ac­cord­ing to the nat­u­ral or­der of things: the Bayes does not con­demn you for your di­s­obe­di­ence, but re­al­ity will not go ac­cord­ing to your hope­ful plans. Nei­ther guilt nor re­pen­tance will save you, since the Bayes cares noth­ing for your alle­giance. Wor­ship­ping the Bayes will not gain its fa­vor, for the Bayes has no ego-de­sire to de­mand your praise. Prob­a­bil­ity the­ory is there to be used, not be­lieved-in. There is no an­cient Taoist manuscript that agrees with such Bayesi­an­ity, but the lan­guage...

The ax­ioms of Bayesian prob­a­bil­ity the­ory make no men­tion of cloth­ing, and there­fore a valid deriva­tion is valid whether you wear a lab coat or a clown suit. The Bayes makes no men­tion of solem­nity or silli­ness, and there­fore lec­ture on ra­tio­nal­ity is just the same whether spo­ken in deep por­ten­tous tones or a high squeaky voice from in­hal­ing he­lium. Un­der­stand­ing what prob­a­bil­ity the­ory con­strains and does not con­strain, we are free to be spon­ta­neous in all other re­spects. This pu­rity and free­dom is preached in no Bud­dhist tract, but there is some­thing of an Eastern aes­thetic about it—and a math­e­mat­i­cal aes­thetic also, but math knows no East or West, and is sim­ply math.

Miyamoto Musashi said:

“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.”

Like­wise in ra­tio­nal­ity. Every step cuts through to the truth in the same move­ment. Every step car­ries the map through to re­flect the ter­ri­tory. If you fail to achieve a cor­rect an­swer, it is fu­tile to protest that you acted with pro­pri­ety. Whether you wear a lab coat or a clown suit, how­ever much it might naively seem to as­so­ci­ate with sci­ence, does not af­fect whether you cut through to the cor­rect an­swer. (This is why I’m not afraid to bor­row the lan­guage of Tao­ism, or verse-form when the whim takes me; mere style makes no differ­ence to prob­a­bil­ity the­ory.) You might think that such fo­cus, such pur­pose­ful­ness, is more Western than Eastern—but where is the equiv­a­lent dec­la­ra­tion of Musashi’s by a Western philoso­pher?

Lest I seem to give the East too much praise, I note a well-known tru­ism to the effect that Western­ers over­es­ti­mate the av­er­age qual­ity of Eastern philos­o­phy be­cause only the good stuff gets im­ported. Bud­dhism seems “athe­is­tic” be­cause you don’t read about the ten thou­sand minor deities un­abashedly wor­shipped on the street. Such se­lec­tivity is right and proper, and I make no apol­ogy for it. I am not try­ing for au­then­tic­ity, that is not my pur­pose.

Like­wise, I don’t spend much time pon­der­ing my “Western in­fluences” be­cause they are as nat­u­ral to me as breath­ing, as un­seen to me as air. If I had grown up in Taiwan, my writ­ing would prob­a­bly sound far more Bud­dhist and Taois­tic; and per­haps I would talk of the in­spira­tion (though not ad­vice) I had re­ceived from read­ing some Taiwanese book about Greek philoso­phers, and how I of­ten felt closer to Ju­daism than my for­got­ten child­hood Bud­dhism.

Nonethe­less, I think it a wise thing for an as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist to read at least one book of Bud­dhist or Taoist or Zen philos­o­phy—prefer­ably a book in its origi­nal English, recom­mended to you by some math­e­mat­i­cian or pro­gram­mer or sci­en­tist.