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.