Get Curious

Being levels above in [rationality] means doing rationalist practice 101 much better than others [just like] being a few levels above in fighting means executing a basic front-kick much better than others.

- lessdazed

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

- Bruce Lee

Recently, when Eliezer wanted to explain why he thought Anna Salamon was among the best rationalists he knew, he picked out one feature of Anna’s behavior in particular:

I see you start to answer a question, and then you stop, and I see you get curious.

For me, the ability to reliably get curious is the basic front-kick of epistemic rationality. The best rationalists I know are not necessarily those who know the finer points of cognitive psychology, Bayesian statistics, and Solomonoff Induction. The best rationalists I know are those who can reliably get curious.

Once, I explained the Cognitive Reflection Test to Riley Crane by saying it was made of questions that tempt your intuitions to quickly give a wrong answer. For example:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you haven’t seen this question before and you’re like most people, your brain screams “10 cents!” But elementary algebra shows that can’t be right. The correct answer is 5 cents. To get the right answer, I explained, you need to interrupt your intuitive judgment and think “No! Algebra.”

A lot of rationalist practice is like that. Whether thinking about physics or sociology or relationships, you need to catch your intuitive judgment and think “No! Curiosity.

Most of us know how to do algebra. How does one “do” curiosity?

Below, I propose a process for how to “get curious.” I think we are only just beginning to learn how to create curious people, so please don’t take this method as Science or Gospel but instead as an attempt to Just Try It.

As with my algorithm for beating procrastination, you’ll want to practice each step of the process in advance so that when you want to get curious, you’re well-practiced on each step already. With enough practice, these steps may even become habits.

Step 1: Feel that you don’t already know the answer.

If you have beliefs about the matter already, push the “reset” button and erase that part of your map. You must feel that you don’t already know the answer.

Exercise 1.1: Import the feeling of uncertainty.

  1. Think of a question you clearly don’t know the answer to. When will AI be created? Is my current diet limiting my cognitive abilities? Is it harder to become the Prime Minister of Britain or the President of France?

  2. Close your eyes and pay attention to how that blank spot on your map feels. (To me, it feels like I can see a silhouette of someone in the darkness ahead, but I wouldn’t take bets on who it is, and I expect to be surprised by their identity when I get close enough to see them.)

  3. Hang on to that feeling or image of uncertainty and think about the thing you’re trying to get curious about. If your old certainty creeps back, switch to thinking about who composed the Voynich manuscript again, then import that feeling of uncertainty into the thing you’re trying to get curious about, again.

Exercise 1.2: Consider all the things you’ve been confident but wrong about.

  1. Think of things you once believed but were wrong about. The more similar those beliefs are to the beliefs you’re now considering, the better.

  2. Meditate on the frequency of your errors, and on the depths of your biases (if you know enough cognitive psychology).

Step 2: Want to know the answer.

Now, you must want to fill in this blank part of your map.

You mustn’t wish it to remain blank due to apathy or fear. Don’t avoid getting the answer because you might learn you should eat less pizza and more half-sticks of butter. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself.

You also mustn’t let your desire that your inquiry have a certain answer block you from discovering how the world actually is. You must want your map to resemble the territory, whatever the territory looks like. This enables you to change things more effectively than if you falsely believed that the world was already the way you want it to be.

Exercise 2.1: Visualize the consequences of being wrong.

  1. Generate hypotheses about the ways the world may be. Maybe you should eat less gluten and more vegetables? Maybe a high-protein diet plus some nootropics would boost your IQ 5 points? Maybe your diet is fairly optimal for cognitive function already?

  2. Next, visualize the consequences of being wrong, including the consequences of remaining ignorant. Visualize the consequences of performing 10 IQ points below your potential because you were too lazy to investigate, or because you were strongly motivated to justify your preference for a particular theory of nutrition. Visualize the consequences of screwing up your neurology by taking nootropics you feel excited about but that often cause harm to people with cognitive architectures similar to your own.

Exercise 2.2: Make plans for different worlds.

  1. Generate hypotheses about the way the world could be — different worlds you might be living in. Maybe you live in a world where you’d improve your cognitive function by taking nootropics, or maybe you live in a world where the nootropics would harm you.

  2. Make plans for what you’ll do if you happen to live in World #1, what you’ll do if you happen to live in World #2, etc. (For unpleasant possible worlds, this also gives you an opportunity to leave a line of retreat for yourself.)

  3. Notice that these plans are different. This should produce in you some curiosity about which world you actually live in, so that you can make plans appropriate for the world you do live in rather than for one of the worlds you don’t live in.

Exercise 2.3: Recite the Litany of Tarski.

The Litany of Tarski can be adapted to any question. If you’re considering whether the sky is blue, the Litany of Tarski is:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe the sky is blue.
If the sky is not blue,
I desire not to believe the sky is blue.

Exercise 2.4: Recite the Litany of Gendlin.

The Litany of Gendlin reminds us:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it
doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true,
it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Step 3: Sprint headlong into reality.

If you’ve made yourself uncertain and then curious, you’re now in a position to use argument, empiricism, and scholarship to sprint headlong into reality. This part probably requires some domain-relevant knowledge and an understanding of probability theory and value of information calculations. What tests could answer your question quickly? How can you perform those tests? If the answer can be looked up in a book, which book?

These are important questions, but I think the first two steps of getting curious are more important. If someone can master steps 1 and 2, they’ll be so driven by curiosity that they’ll eventually figure out how to do step 3 for many scenarios. In contrast, most people who are equipped to do step 3 pretty well still get the wrong answers because they can’t reliably execute steps 1 and 2.

Conclusion: Curiosity in Action

A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. If you think it is your duty to doubt your own beliefs and criticize your own arguments, then you may do this for a while and conclude that you have done your duty and you’re a Good Rationalist. Then you can feel satisfied and virtuous and move along without being genuinely curious.

In contrast,

if you can find within yourself the slightest shred of true uncertainty, then guard it like a forester nursing a campfire. If you can make it blaze up into a flame of curiosity, it will make you light and eager, and give purpose to your questioning and direction to your skills.

My recommendation? Practice the front-kick of epistemic rationality every day. For months. Train your ape-brain to get curious.

Rationality is not magic. For many people, it can be learned and trained.