Tolerate Tolerance

One of the likely char­ac­ter­is­tics of some­one who sets out to be a “ra­tio­nal­ist” is a lower-than-usual tol­er­ance for flaws in rea­son­ing. This doesn’t strictly fol­low. You could end up, say, re­ject­ing your re­li­gion, just be­cause you spot­ted more or deeper flaws in the rea­son­ing, not be­cause you were, by your na­ture, more an­noyed at a flaw of fixed size. But re­al­is­ti­cally speak­ing, a lot of us prob­a­bly have our level of “an­noy­ance at all these flaws we’re spot­ting” set a bit higher than av­er­age.

That’s why it’s so im­por­tant for us to tol­er­ate oth­ers’ tol­er­ance if we want to get any­thing done to­gether.

For me, the poster case of tol­er­ance I need to tol­er­ate is Ben Go­ertzel, who among other things runs an an­nual AI con­fer­ence, and who has some­thing nice to say about ev­ery­one. Ben even com­pli­mented the ideas of M*nt*f*x, the most leg­endary of all AI crack­pots. (M*nt*f*x ap­par­ently started adding a link to Ben’s com­pli­ment in his email sig­na­tures, pre­sum­ably be­cause it was the only com­pli­ment he’d ever got­ten from a bona fide AI aca­demic.) (Please do not pro­nounce his True Name cor­rectly or he will be sum­moned here.)

But I’ve come to un­der­stand that this is one of Ben’s strengths—that he’s nice to lots of peo­ple that oth­ers might ig­nore, in­clud­ing, say, me—and ev­ery now and then this pays off for him.

And if I sub­tract points off Ben’s rep­u­ta­tion for find­ing some­thing nice to say about peo­ple and pro­jects that I think are hope­less—even M*nt*f*x—then what I’m do­ing is in­sist­ing that Ben dis­like ev­ery­one I dis­like be­fore I can work with him.

Is that a re­al­is­tic stan­dard? Espe­cially if differ­ent peo­ple are an­noyed in differ­ent amounts by differ­ent things?

But it’s hard to re­mem­ber that when Ben is be­ing nice to so many idiots.

Co­op­er­a­tion is un­sta­ble, in both game the­ory and evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy, with­out some kind of pun­ish­ment for defec­tion. So it’s one thing to sub­tract points off some­one’s rep­u­ta­tion for mis­takes they make them­selves, di­rectly. But if you also look askance at some­one for re­fus­ing to cas­ti­gate a per­son or idea, then that is pun­ish­ment of non-pun­ish­ers, a far more dan­ger­ous idiom that can lock an equil­ibrium in place even if it’s harm­ful to ev­ery­one in­volved.

The dan­ger of pun­ish­ing non­pun­ish­ers is some­thing I re­mind my­self of, say, ev­ery time Robin Han­son points out a flaw in some aca­demic trope and yet mod­estly con­fesses he could be wrong (and he’s not wrong). Or ev­ery time I see Michael Vas­sar still con­sid­er­ing the po­ten­tial of some­one who I wrote off as hope­less within 30 sec­onds of be­ing in­tro­duced to them. I have to re­mind my­self, “Tol­er­ate tol­er­ance! Don’t de­mand that your al­lies be equally ex­treme in their nega­tive judg­ments of ev­ery­thing you dis­like!”

By my na­ture, I do get an­noyed when some­one else seems to be giv­ing too much credit. I don’t know if ev­ery­one’s like that, but I sus­pect that at least some of my fel­low as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists are. I wouldn’t be sur­prised to find it a hu­man uni­ver­sal; it does have an ob­vi­ous evolu­tion­ary ra­tio­nale—one which would make it a very un­pleas­ant and dan­ger­ous adap­ta­tion.

I am not gen­er­ally a fan of “tol­er­ance”. I cer­tainly don’t be­lieve in be­ing “in­tol­er­ant of in­tol­er­ance”, as some in­con­sis­tently hold. But I shall go on try­ing to tol­er­ate peo­ple who are more tol­er­ant than I am, and judge them only for their own un-bor­rowed mis­takes.

Oh, and it goes with­out say­ing that if the peo­ple of Group X are star­ing at you de­mand­ingly, wait­ing for you to hate the right en­e­mies with the right in­ten­sity, and ready to cas­ti­gate you if you fail to cas­ti­gate loudly enough, you may be hang­ing around the wrong group.

Just don’t de­mand that ev­ery­one you work with be equally in­tol­er­ant of be­hav­ior like that. For­give your friends if some of them sug­gest that maybe Group X wasn’t so awful af­ter all...