Something to Protect

In the gestalt of (ahem) Ja­panese fic­tion, one finds this oft-re­peated mo­tif: Power comes from hav­ing some­thing to pro­tect.

I’m not just talk­ing about su­per­heroes that power up when a friend is threat­ened, the way it works in Western fic­tion. In the Ja­panese ver­sion it runs deeper than that.

In the X saga it’s ex­plic­itly stated that each of the good guys draw their power from hav­ing some­one—one per­son—who they want to pro­tect. Who? That ques­tion is part of X’s plot—the “most pre­cious per­son” isn’t always who we think. But if that per­son is kil­led, or hurt in the wrong way, the pro­tec­tor loses their power—not so much from mag­i­cal back­lash, as from sim­ple de­spair. This isn’t some­thing that hap­pens once per week per good guy, the way it would work in a Western comic. It’s equiv­a­lent to be­ing Killed Off For Real—taken off the game board.

The way it works in Western su­per­hero comics is that the good guy gets bit­ten by a ra­dioac­tive spi­der; and then he needs some­thing to do with his pow­ers, to keep him busy, so he de­cides to fight crime. And then Western su­per­heroes are always whin­ing about how much time their su­per­hero du­ties take up, and how they’d rather be or­di­nary mor­tals so they could go fish­ing or some­thing.

Similarly, in Western real life, un­happy peo­ple are told that they need a “pur­pose in life”, so they should pick out an al­tru­is­tic cause that goes well with their per­son­al­ity, like pick­ing out nice liv­ing-room drapes, and this will brighten up their days by adding some color, like nice liv­ing-room drapes. You should be care­ful not to pick some­thing too ex­pen­sive, though.

In Western comics, the magic comes first, then the pur­pose: Ac­quire amaz­ing pow­ers, de­cide to pro­tect the in­no­cent. In Ja­panese fic­tion, of­ten, it works the other way around.

Of course I’m not say­ing all this to gen­er­al­ize from fic­tional ev­i­dence. But I want to con­vey a con­cept whose de­cep­tively close Western analogue is not what I mean.

I have touched be­fore on the idea that a ra­tio­nal­ist must have some­thing they value more than “ra­tio­nal­ity”: The Art must have a pur­pose other than it­self, or it col­lapses into in­finite re­cur­sion. But do not mis­take me, and think I am ad­vo­cat­ing that ra­tio­nal­ists should pick out a nice al­tru­is­tic cause, by way of hav­ing some­thing to do, be­cause ra­tio­nal­ity isn’t all that im­por­tant by it­self. No. I am ask­ing: Where do ra­tio­nal­ists come from? How do we ac­quire our pow­ers?

It is writ­ten in the Twelve Virtues of Ra­tion­al­ity:

How can you im­prove your con­cep­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity? Not by say­ing to your­self, “It is my duty to be ra­tio­nal.” By this you only en­shrine your mis­taken con­cep­tion. Per­haps your con­cep­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity is that it is ra­tio­nal to be­lieve the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but ra­tio­nal­ity is to be­lieve the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to dis­cover your mis­take.

His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, the way hu­man­ity fi­nally left the trap of au­thor­ity and be­gan pay­ing at­ten­tion to, y’know, the ac­tual sky, was that be­liefs based on ex­per­i­ment turned out to be much more use­ful than be­liefs based on au­thor­ity. Cu­ri­os­ity has been around since the dawn of hu­man­ity, but the prob­lem is that spin­ning campfire tales works just as well for satis­fy­ing cu­ri­os­ity.

His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, sci­ence won be­cause it dis­played greater raw strength in the form of tech­nol­ogy, not be­cause sci­ence sounded more rea­son­able. To this very day, magic and scrip­ture still sound more rea­son­able to un­trained ears than sci­ence. That is why there is con­tin­u­ous so­cial ten­sion be­tween the be­lief sys­tems. If sci­ence not only worked bet­ter than magic, but also sounded more in­tu­itively rea­son­able, it would have won en­tirely by now.

Now there are those who say: “How dare you sug­gest that any­thing should be val­ued more than Truth? Must not a ra­tio­nal­ist love Truth more than mere use­ful­ness?”

For­get for a mo­ment what would have hap­pened his­tor­i­cally to some­one like that—that peo­ple in pretty much that frame of mind defended the Bible be­cause they loved Truth more than mere ac­cu­racy. Propo­si­tional moral­ity is a glo­ri­ous thing, but it has too many de­grees of free­dom.

No, the real point is that a ra­tio­nal­ist’s love af­fair with the Truth is, well, just more com­pli­cated as an emo­tional re­la­tion­ship.

One doesn’t be­come an adept ra­tio­nal­ist with­out car­ing about the truth, both as a purely moral desider­a­tum and as some­thing that’s fun to have. I doubt there are many mas­ter com­posers who hate mu­sic.

But part of what I like about ra­tio­nal­ity is the dis­ci­pline im­posed by re­quiring be­liefs to yield pre­dic­tions, which ends up tak­ing us much closer to the truth than if we sat in the liv­ing room ob­sess­ing about Truth all day. I like the com­plex­ity of si­mul­ta­neously hav­ing to love True-seem­ing ideas, and also be­ing ready to drop them out the win­dow at a mo­ment’s no­tice. I even like the glo­ri­ous aes­thetic pu­rity of declar­ing that I value mere use­ful­ness above aes­thet­ics. That is al­most a con­tra­dic­tion, but not quite; and that has an aes­thetic qual­ity as well, a deli­cious hu­mor.

And of course, no mat­ter how much you pro­fess your love of mere use­ful­ness, you should never ac­tu­ally end up de­liber­ately be­liev­ing a use­ful false state­ment.

So don’t over­sim­plify the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lov­ing truth and lov­ing use­ful­ness. It’s not one or the other. It’s com­pli­cated, which is not nec­es­sar­ily a defect in the moral aes­thet­ics of sin­gle events.

But moral­ity and aes­thet­ics alone, be­liev­ing that one ought to be “ra­tio­nal” or that cer­tain ways of think­ing are “beau­tiful”, will not lead you to the cen­ter of the Way. It wouldn’t have got­ten hu­man­ity out of the au­thor­ity-hole.

In Cir­cu­lar Altru­ism, I dis­cussed this dilemma: Which of these op­tions would you pre­fer:

  1. Save 400 lives, with certainty

  2. Save 500 lives, 90% prob­a­bil­ity; save no lives, 10% prob­a­bil­ity.

You may be tempted to grand­stand, say­ing, “How dare you gam­ble with peo­ple’s lives?” Even if you, your­self, are one of the 500—but you don’t know which one—you may still be tempted to rely on the com­fort­ing feel­ing of cer­tainty, be­cause our own lives are of­ten worth less to us than a good in­tu­ition.

But if your pre­cious daugh­ter is one of the 500, and you don’t know which one, then, per­haps, you may feel more im­pel­led to shut up and mul­ti­ply—to no­tice that you have an 80% chance of sav­ing her in the first case, and a 90% chance of sav­ing her in the sec­ond.

And yes, ev­ery­one in that crowd is some­one’s son or daugh­ter. Which, in turn, sug­gests that we should pick the sec­ond op­tion as al­tru­ists, as well as con­cerned par­ents.

My point is not to sug­gest that one per­son’s life is more valuable than 499 peo­ple. What I am try­ing to say is that more than your own life has to be at stake, be­fore a per­son be­comes des­per­ate enough to re­sort to math.

What if you be­lieve that it is “ra­tio­nal” to choose the cer­tainty of op­tion 1? Lots of peo­ple think that “ra­tio­nal­ity” is about choos­ing only meth­ods that are cer­tain to work, and re­ject­ing all un­cer­tainty. But, hope­fully, you care more about your daugh­ter’s life than about “ra­tio­nal­ity”.

Will pride in your own virtue as a ra­tio­nal­ist save you? Not if you be­lieve that it is vir­tu­ous to choose cer­tainty. You will only be able to learn some­thing about ra­tio­nal­ity if your daugh­ter’s life mat­ters more to you than your pride as a ra­tio­nal­ist.

You may even learn some­thing about ra­tio­nal­ity from the ex­pe­rience, if you are already far enough grown in your Art to say, “I must have had the wrong con­cep­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity,” and not, “Look at how ra­tio­nal­ity gave me the wrong an­swer!”

(The es­sen­tial difficulty in be­com­ing a mas­ter ra­tio­nal­ist is that you need quite a bit of ra­tio­nal­ity to boot­strap the learn­ing pro­cess.)

Is your be­lief that you ought to be ra­tio­nal, more im­por­tant than your life? Be­cause, as I’ve pre­vi­ously ob­served, risk­ing your life isn’t com­par­a­tively all that scary. Be­ing the lone voice of dis­sent in the crowd and hav­ing ev­ery­one look at you funny is much scarier than a mere threat to your life, ac­cord­ing to the re­vealed prefer­ences of teenagers who drink at par­ties and then drive home. It will take some­thing ter­ribly im­por­tant to make you will­ing to leave the pack. A threat to your life won’t be enough.

Is your will to ra­tio­nal­ity stronger than your pride? Can it be, if your will to ra­tio­nal­ity stems from your pride in your self-image as a ra­tio­nal­ist? It’s helpful—very helpful—to have a self-image which says that you are the sort of per­son who con­fronts harsh truth. It’s helpful to have too much self-re­spect to know­ingly lie to your­self or re­fuse to face ev­i­dence. But there may come a time when you have to ad­mit that you’ve been do­ing ra­tio­nal­ity all wrong. Then your pride, your self-image as a ra­tio­nal­ist, may make that too hard to face.

If you’ve prided your­self on be­liev­ing what the Great Teacher says—even when it seems harsh, even when you’d rather not—that may make it all the more bit­ter a pill to swal­low, to ad­mit that the Great Teacher is a fraud, and all your no­ble self-sac­ri­fice was for naught.

Where do you get the will to keep mov­ing for­ward?

When I look back at my own per­sonal jour­ney to­ward ra­tio­nal­ity—not just hu­man­ity’s his­tor­i­cal jour­ney—well, I grew up be­liev­ing very strongly that I ought to be ra­tio­nal. This made me an above-av­er­age Tra­di­tional Ra­tion­al­ist a la Feyn­man and Hein­lein, and noth­ing more. It did not drive me to go be­yond the teach­ings I had re­ceived. I only be­gan to grow fur­ther as a ra­tio­nal­ist once I had some­thing ter­ribly im­por­tant that I needed to do. Some­thing more im­por­tant than my pride as a ra­tio­nal­ist, never mind my life.

Only when you be­come more wed­ded to suc­cess than to any of your be­loved tech­niques of ra­tio­nal­ity, do you be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate these words of Miyamoto Musashi:

“You can win with a long weapon, and yet you can also win with a short weapon. In short, the Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of win­ning, what­ever the weapon and what­ever its size.”
—Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

Don’t mis­take this for a spe­cific teach­ing of ra­tio­nal­ity. It de­scribes how you learn the Way, be­gin­ning with a des­per­ate need to suc­ceed. No one mas­ters the Way un­til more than their life is at stake. More than their com­fort, more even than their pride.

You can’t just pick out a Cause like that be­cause you feel you need a hobby. Go look­ing for a “good cause”, and your mind will just fill in a stan­dard cliche. Learn how to mul­ti­ply, and per­haps you will rec­og­nize a dras­ti­cally im­por­tant cause when you see one.

But if you have a cause like that, it is right and proper to wield your ra­tio­nal­ity in its ser­vice.

To strictly sub­or­di­nate the aes­thet­ics of ra­tio­nal­ity to a higher cause, is part of the aes­thetic of ra­tio­nal­ity. You should pay at­ten­tion to that aes­thetic: You will never mas­ter ra­tio­nal­ity well enough to win with any weapon, if you do not ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty for its own sake.