Hammertime Final Exam

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This is part 30 of 30 in the Ham­mer­time Se­quence. Click here for the in­tro.

One of the over­ar­ch­ing themes from CFAR, re­lated to The Strate­gic Level, is that what you learn at CFAR is not a spe­cific tech­nique or set of tech­niques, but the cog­ni­tive strat­egy that pro­duced those tech­niques. It fol­lows that if I learned the right les­sons from CFAR, then I would be able to pro­duce qual­i­ta­tively similar – if not as well em­piri­cally tested – new prin­ci­ples and ap­proaches to in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity.

After CFAR, I wanted to de­sign a test to see if I had learned the right les­sons. Ham­mer­time was that sort of test for me. Now here’s that same test for you.

The Fi­nal Exam

I will give three es­say prompts and three difficulty lev­els. Origi­nal ideas would be great, but shin­ing a new light on old ham­mers is also wel­come!


  1. De­sign a in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity tech­nique.

  2. In­tro­duce a ra­tio­nal­ity prin­ci­ple or frame­work.

  3. De­scribe a cog­ni­tive defect, bias, or blindspot.

Difficulty Levels

Bronze Mace mode. Write one es­say on one of the top­ics above.

Steel Cudgel of the Lion mode. Write two of three.

Vor­pal Dragon­scale Sledge­ham­mer of the Whale mode. Write all three. For each es­say, give your­self five min­utes to brain­storm and five min­utes to write.

Here are my an­swers.

1. Co­op­er­ate First

There’s an old story about a fa­mous painter of the Real­ist school who spent a whole year of his train­ing paint­ing still lives of eggs. Each day, he would draw a sin­gle egg over and over. He must have pro­duced thou­sands of sketches and paint­ings of eggs. His teacher knew ex­actly how im­por­tant fun­da­men­tals are.

This same mo­tif is deeply em­bed­ded in sto­ries all over the world:

Re­turn to fun­da­men­tals. Prac­tice your fun­da­men­tals.

The iter­ated pris­oner’s dilemma is one of the fun­da­men­tal les­sons of ra­tio­nal­ity. The world is more like a num­ber of iter­ated pris­oner’s dilem­mas than you’d think. Hu­man be­ings are more like tit-for-tat play­ers than you’d think. It fol­lows:

Co­op­er­ate First!

The first move you make in any in­ter­ac­tion with a new ac­quain­tance should be a co­op­er­ate, even if you ex­pect them to defect. Per­haps even if you ob­serve them defect­ing already.

Here’s a les­son I learned from med­i­tat­ing on the maxim Co­op­er­ate First:

Co­op­er­at­ing First feels like ac­cept­ing an un­fair game from the in­side. There will be many situ­a­tions in life where things are framed in a slightly but no­tice­ably un­fair way to­wards you ini­tially. Err on the side of ac­cept­ing these games any­way!

2. Below the Ob­ject Level

One of my main com­plaints about ra­tio­nal­ists (my­self in­cluded) is our ten­dency to es­ca­late to the meta-level too of­ten. For ex­am­ple, in any given dis­cus­sion, ar­gu­ments over gen­eral dis­cus­sion norms get much more heated and lively than any dis­cus­sion of the un­der­ly­ing sub­ject mat­ter. We need to spend more time at the ob­ject level, touch­ing re­al­ity, mak­ing ex­per­i­ments, test­ing our hy­pothe­ses.

The move I use to com­bat the ten­dency to es­ca­late meta, I call look­ing be­low the ob­ject level.

Look­ing be­low the ob­ject level is like the move HPMOR_Harry does to achieve par­tial trans­figu­ra­tion: con­tinu­ally up­ping the mag­nifi­ca­tion on your men­tal micro­scope to ac­tu­ally stare at the de­tail in re­al­ity. Real­ity is so ex­or­bitantly de­tailed it’s over­whelming to take it all in. Try.

Look at the folds in your clothes, the way light and shadow play off each other. The way threads in­ter­weave. Pinch the cloth and watch the creases re­or­ga­nize un­der your fingers.

Now re­flect on this fact: fal­ling wa­ter is at­tracted to both pos­i­tive and nega­tive charges.


There’s so much go­ing on un­der what we think of as the ob­ject level.

3. Pre-Excuses

Pre-hind­sight is a ver­sion of Mur­phyjitsu where you query your mind for what you will learn from an ac­tion in hind­sight. Pre-ex­cuses are an un­pro­duc­tive cousin that of­ten de­rail my work.

As a se­rial pro­cras­ti­na­tor, I no­tice a fairly reg­u­lar pat­tern of think­ing that ap­pears the cou­ple days be­fore I have to meet a pro­fes­sor, and es­pe­cially be­fore meet­ing my the­sis ad­viser. My mind is already spin­ning ex­cuses on over­drive. Here’s what my mind sounds like a full day be­fore I have to meet my ad­viser, when I think about the meet­ing:

Sorry, this pa­per took longer than I ex­pected to read.

Sorry, I was busy from other classes, so I didn’t do as much pa­per-writ­ing as I’d planned to.

Sorry, I got side­tracked by this re­search prob­lem, so I didn’t finish the home­work.

That’s right, I’m hav­ing these thoughts about how to apol­o­gize for not do­ing work even though I still have plenty of time to do the work. Even worse, I have these pre-ex­cuse thoughts reg­u­larly even if I’ve done the work ex­pected of me – it feels some­thing like cush­ion­ing the fall in case it turns out I did it poorly.

And they’re usu­ally not even good ex­cuses.

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