Explicit and tacit rationality

Like Eliezer, I “do my best think­ing into a key­board.” It starts with a burn­ing itch to figure some­thing out. I col­lect ideas and ar­gu­ments and ev­i­dence and sources. I ar­range them, tweak them, crit­i­cize them. I ex­plain it all in my own words so I can un­der­stand it bet­ter. By then it is nearly some­thing that oth­ers would want to read, so I clean it up and pub­lish, say, How to Beat Pro­cras­ti­na­tion. I write es­says in the origi­nal sense of the word: “at­tempts.”

This time, I’m try­ing to figure out some­thing we might call “tacit ra­tio­nal­ity” (c.f. tacit knowl­edge).

I tried and failed to write a good post about tacit ra­tio­nal­ity, so I wrote a bad post in­stead — one that is ba­si­cally a patch­work of some­what-re­lated mus­ings on ex­plicit and tacit ra­tio­nal­ity. There­fore I’m post­ing this ar­ti­cle to LW Dis­cus­sion. I hope the en­su­ing dis­cus­sion ends up lead­ing some­where with more clar­ity and use­ful­ness.

Three meth­ods for train­ing rationality

Which of these three op­tions do you think will train ra­tio­nal­ity (i.e. sys­tem­atized win­ning, or “win­ning-ra­tio­nal­ity”) most effec­tively?

  1. Spend one year read­ing and re-read­ing The Se­quences, study­ing the math and cog­ni­tive sci­ence of ra­tio­nal­ity, and dis­cussing ra­tio­nal­ity on­line and at Less Wrong mee­tups.

  2. At­tend a CFAR work­shop, then spend the next year prac­tic­ing those skills and other ra­tio­nal­ity habits ev­ery week.

  3. Run a startup or small busi­ness for one year.

Op­tion 1 seems to be pretty effec­tive at train­ing peo­ple to talk in­tel­li­gently about ra­tio­nal­ity (let’s call that “talk­ing-ra­tio­nal­ity”), and it seems to in­oc­u­late peo­ple against some com­mon philo­soph­i­cal mis­takes.

We don’t yet have any ex­am­ples of some­one do­ing Op­tion 2 (the first CFAR work­shop was May 2012), but I’d ex­pect Op­tion 2 — if ac­tu­ally ex­e­cuted — to re­sult in more win­ning-ra­tio­nal­ity than Op­tion 1, and also a mod­icum of talk­ing-ra­tio­nal­ity.

What about Op­tion 3? Un­like Op­tion 2 or es­pe­cially Op­tion 1, I’d ex­pect it to train al­most no abil­ity to talk in­tel­li­gently about ra­tio­nal­ity. But I would ex­pect it to re­sult in rel­a­tively good win­ning-ra­tio­nal­ity, due to its tight feed­back loops.

Talk­ing-ra­tio­nal­ity and win­ning-ra­tio­nal­ity can come apart

I’ve come to be­lieve… that the best way to suc­ceed is to dis­cover what you love and then find a way to offer it to oth­ers in the form of ser­vice, work­ing hard, and also al­low­ing the en­ergy of the uni­verse to lead you.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah isn’t known for be­ing a ra­tio­nal thinker. She is a known ped­dler of pseu­do­science, and she at­tributes her suc­cess (in part) to al­low­ing “the en­ergy of the uni­verse” to lead her.

Yet she must be do­ing some­thing right. Oprah is a true rags-to-riches story. Born in Mis­sis­sippi to an un­wed teenage house­maid, she was so poor she wore dresses made of potato sacks. She was mo­lested by a cousin, an un­cle, and a fam­ily friend. She be­came preg­nant at age 14.

But in high school she be­came an hon­ors stu­dent, won or­a­tory con­tests and a beauty pageant, and was hired by a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion to re­port the news. She be­came the youngest-ever news an­chor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV, then hosted sev­eral shows in Bal­ti­more, then moved to Chicago and within months her own talk show shot from last place to first place in the rat­ings there. Shortly af­ter­ward her show went na­tional. She also pro­duced and starred in sev­eral TV shows, was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for her role in a Steven Spielberg movie, launched her own TV ca­ble net­work and her own mag­a­z­ine (the “most suc­cess­ful startup ever in the [mag­a­z­ine] in­dus­try” ac­cord­ing to For­tune), and be­came the world’s first fe­male black billion­aire.

I’d like to sug­gest that Oprah’s climb prob­a­bly didn’t come merely through in­born tal­ent, hard work, and luck. To get from potato sack dresses to the Forbes billion­aire list, Oprah had to make thou­sands of pretty good de­ci­sions. She had to make pretty ac­cu­rate guesses about the likely con­se­quences of var­i­ous ac­tions she could take. When she was wrong, she had to cor­rect course fairly quickly. In short, she had to be fairly ra­tio­nal, at least in some do­mains of her life.

Similarly, I know plenty of busi­ness man­agers and en­trepreneurs who have a steady track record of good de­ci­sions and wise judg­ments, and yet they are re­li­gious, or they com­mit ba­sic er­rors in logic and prob­a­bil­ity when they talk about non-busi­ness sub­jects.

What’s go­ing on here? My guess is that suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs and busi­ness man­agers and other peo­ple must have pretty good tacit ra­tio­nal­ity, even if they aren’t very profi­cient with the “ra­tio­nal­ity” con­cepts that Less Wrongers tend to dis­cuss on a daily ba­sis. Stated an­other way, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­peo­ple make fairly ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions and judg­ments, even though they may con­fab­u­late rather silly ex­pla­na­tions for their suc­cess, and even though they don’t un­der­stand the math or sci­ence of ra­tio­nal­ity well.

LWers can prob­a­bly out­perform Mark Zucker­berg on the CRT and the Ber­lin Numer­acy Test, but Zucker­berg is laugh­ing at them from atop a huge pile of util­ity.

Ex­plicit and tacit rationality

Pa­tri Fried­man, in Self-Im­prove­ment or Shiny Dis­trac­tion: Why Less Wrong is anti-In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity, re­minded us that skill ac­qui­si­tion comes from de­liber­ate prac­tice, and read­ing LW is a “shiny dis­trac­tion,” not de­liber­ate prac­tice. He said a real ra­tio­nal­ity prac­tice would look more like… well, what Pa­tri de­scribes is ba­si­cally CFAR, though CFAR didn’t ex­ist at the time.

In re­sponse, and again long be­fore CFAR ex­isted, Anna Sala­mon wrote Goals for which Less Wrong does (and doesn’t) help. Sum­mary: Some do­mains provide rich, cheap feed­back, so you don’t need much LW-style ra­tio­nal­ity to be­come suc­cess­ful in those do­mains. But many of us have goals in do­mains that don’t offer rapid feed­back: e.g. whether to buy cry­on­ics, which 40-year in­vest­ments are safe, which metaethics to en­dorse. For this kind of thing you need LW-style ra­tio­nal­ity. (We could also state this as “Do­mains with rapid feed­back train tacit ra­tio­nal­ity with re­spect to those do­mains, but for do­mains with­out rapid feed­back you’ve got to do the best you can with LW-style “ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity”.)

The good news is that you should be able to com­bine ex­plicit and tacit ra­tio­nal­ity. Ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity can help you re­al­ize that you should force tight feed­back loops into whichever do­mains you want to suc­ceed in, so that you can have de­velop good in­tu­itions about how to suc­ceed in those do­mains. (See also: Lean Startup or Lean Non­profit meth­ods.)

Ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity could also help you re­al­ize that the cog­ni­tive bi­ases most-dis­cussed in the liter­a­ture aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the ones you should fo­cus on ame­lio­rat­ing, as Aaron Swartz wrote:

Cog­ni­tive bi­ases cause peo­ple to make choices that are most ob­vi­ously ir­ra­tional, but not most im­por­tantly ir­ra­tional… Since cog­ni­tive bi­ases are the pri­mary fo­cus of re­search into ra­tio­nal­ity, ra­tio­nal­ity tests mostly mea­sure how good you are at avoid­ing them… LW read­ers tend to be fairly good at avoid­ing cog­ni­tive bi­ases… But there a whole se­ries of much more im­por­tant ir­ra­tional­ities that LWers suffer from. (Let’s call them “prac­ti­cal bi­ases” as op­posed to “cog­ni­tive bi­ases,” even though both are ul­ti­mately prac­ti­cal and cog­ni­tive.)

...Ra­tion­al­ity, prop­erly un­der­stood, is in fact a pre­dic­tor of suc­cess. Per­haps if LWers used suc­cess as their met­ric (as op­posed to get­ting bet­ter at avoid­ing ob­vi­ous mis­takes), they might fo­cus on their most im­por­tant ir­ra­tional­ities (in­stead of their most ob­vi­ous ones), which would lead them to be more ra­tio­nal and more suc­cess­ful.

Fi­nal scat­tered thoughts

  • If some­one is con­sis­tently win­ning, and not just be­cause they have tons of wealth or fame, then maybe you should con­clude they have pretty good tacit ra­tio­nal­ity even if their ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity is ter­rible.

  • The pos­i­tive effects of tight feed­back loops might trump the effects of ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing.

  • Still, I sus­pect ex­plicit ra­tio­nal­ity plus tight feed­back loops could lead to the best re­sults of all.

  • I re­ally hope we can de­velop a real ra­tio­nal­ity dojo.

  • If you’re read­ing this post, you’re prob­a­bly spend­ing too much time read­ing Less Wrong, and too lit­tle time hack­ing your mo­ti­va­tion sys­tem, learn­ing so­cial skills, and learn­ing how to in­ject tight feed­back loops into ev­ery­thing you can.