My Conversion from LW to Pragmatism: Steelman

Some think of hu­mans as the “sci­en­tific species.” But also as failures, be­cause, well, hu­mans mostly do just fail when it comes to think­ing and act­ing sci­en­tifi­cally.

It’s a lit­tle odd, isn’t it, that we’d be so bad at do­ing the thing we were built for?
So, maybe we weren’t built for it af­ter all. Be­cause what­ever we’re re­ally built for, we should prob­a­bly be pretty good at it.

Ac­tu­ally, when you think about it, it doesn’t re­ally make sense that we would be sci­en­tifi­cally-ori­ented. Science has only re­ally been around for a few hun­dred years. If you could look at hu­mans from 10,000 years ago, they wouldn’t be try­ing to be sci­en­tists and then failing at it.
They just wouldn’t be try­ing to be sci­en­tific at all. They had never even heard of the idea.

And it would re­ally be kind of weird to look at a species that has never heard of sci­ence, and isn’t try­ing to do it, and call them a “sci­en­tific species,” wouldn’t it.

So, what are we built for? What are we suc­ceed­ing at?

I think it’s more like magic and trib­al­ism.

Trib­al­ism has been talked a lot about, so what about magic?

What I mean by magic is *men­tal tools*. Ideas in your head that help you han­dle prob­lems, even if they’re not fac­tual.

Fac­tual ideas. That’s the “sci­en­tific species” idea, right? They say that we’re try­ing to have fac­tual ideas in our heads, but most of us are pretty bad at it.
But what ex­actly is it that we have in our heads in­stead of facts? For we clearly have ideas in our heads, just not fac­tual ones.
If we’re not choos­ing our ideas so we can have fac­tual ac­cu­racy, what are we choos­ing them for?

For magic. For their tool-like na­ture. For their abil­ity to em­power us to nav­i­gate the treach­er­ous ter­rain in our life.

And that should sound a lit­tle fa­mil­iar, be­cause, af­ter all, what is it that peo­ple cling to in­stead of to fac­tual ideas? What kind of ideas do peo­ple pro­tect from sci­ence and re­fuse to give up?
It’s the ideas that help them get through the day, and it’s the ideas that help them get through their fiery tri­als, and it’s the ideas that help them get through life it­self!

Use­ful ideas.

So, there it is. Hu­mans are a species re­ally good at find­ing ideas that work for them, “magic.” In other words, hu­mans aren’t failed sci­en­tists, they’re suc­cess­ful ma­gi­ci­ans. They dis­cover and craft a set of ideas to­gether like a suit of ar­mor, and then, when they hold those ideas in their head and run scream­ing into the bat­tle of life, they find their limbs strength­ened and their fear is kept at bay. Just like magic. Giv­ing up bat­tle-readi­ness for fac­tual ac­cu­racy will just get you kil­led. Re­sult: now your brain holds zero facts.


And that’s where the trib­al­ism comes in. Peo­ple gather to­gether with peo­ple who will share their mag­i­cal ideas.

For one thing, a lot of magic ideas don’t do very well if peo­ple are ques­tion­ing them. So you stay with peo­ple who won’t ques­tion, and more, peo­ple who will agree with you and on top of that, who will share sto­ries that strengthen your be­lief in the magic. They tell sto­ries “Yes, this is how the magic has helped me too,” and talk about how the magic of other groups is ac­tu­ally in­fe­rior and im­moral.

And for an­other thing, if ev­ery­one has the same ideas, then you know how to deal with each other, be­cause they’re like you. Deal­ing with peo­ple with strange other be­liefs is difficult and chaotic, be­cause you never know ex­actly what they’re go­ing to do. And if you make a mis­take, what ideas are in their head about how to re­solve mis­takes? Well, you don’t ex­actly know, so you don’t know if some­thing is go­ing to jump out and bite you, so you’re always on your toes.

It’s very nice to get back to your own group where you know what’s up and down, and you can re­lax.

And thirdly, on top of that, it takes time to build so­cial re­la­tion­ships, right? The peo­ple in your magic group are with you for a lot of time, so you nat­u­rally build your re­la­tion­ships with them. Chang­ing your magic ideas drives a wedge be­tween you all, and now you’ll have to start all over again with new peo­ple that you can build re­la­tion­ships with. If you have time, and if they’ll like you. No guaran­tees. Very risky.

So groups are im­por­tant to us, and our magic ties us to our group.

All in all, hu­mans are very good at pro­tect­ing their magic, their men­tal tools, from be­ing changed. And they’re good at stick­ing to their groups and sup­port­ing each other in their groups.
That’s what we are.

We are suc­cess­ful magic fam­i­lies, not failed sci­en­tists.

And some of us are more sci­en­tifi­cally-minded than oth­ers, and we as­sume that ev­ery­one else is, too. So when we see them not act­ing very sci­en­tifi­cally, we just as­sume that they’re failures. They must be aiming at sci­ence like we are, and they must be try­ing to suc­ceed at think­ing sci­en­tifi­cally, but they’re just not as good at it as we are.

But it’s not all our fault we make that mis­take. After all, peo­ple do say they care about truth. So we’re just tak­ing them at their word, right?. But if you look more closely...they also say “your truth and my truth,” which shows that they don’t re­ally mean truth in the same sense as sci­en­tists, do they? Not in the sense of facts and ac­cu­racy and it doesn’t mat­ter what you be­lieve and so on. They mean it in some other way...But we don’t un­der­stand that, re­ally.

So we try to help them find facts bet­ter, any­way. But then we’re sur­prised that they don’t ap­pre­ci­ate the as­sis­tance. We’d cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ate the as­sis­tance if some­one helped us to aim bet­ter at sci­ence, so why don’t these peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate what we’re do­ing for them? And why are they so bad at sci­ence in the first place? And why aren’t they in­ter­ested in the ways we have dis­cov­ered to aug­ment and en­hance our sci­en­tific think­ing?

All of these ques­tions dis­ap­pear when you re­al­ize that peo­ple aren’t try­ing to be sci­en­tists and failing, they’re try­ing to be good group mem­bers, and they’re try­ing to nav­i­gate life suc­cess­fully with their magic, and...well, they’re ac­tu­ally kind of suc­ceed­ing, aren’t they?
Maybe suc­ceed­ing more than you. Yes, you might be suc­ceed­ing more at sci­ence, at fact-find­ing, but they’re suc­ceed­ing more at so­cia­bil­ity and ac­com­plish­ment. Per­haps they are look­ing at you and won­der­ing why you’re the one so bad at ev­ery­thing ex­cept sci­ence.

Be­cause maybe you’re not try­ing but failing to be a good tribe mem­ber and you’re not try­ing but failing to find good magic, in­stead you’re try­ing to be a sci­en­tist and you’re suc­ceed­ing.

But why? Why suc­ceed at that and fail at the rest?­cause facts come first. Truth above all else.

And why that? Be­


It must be granted, on a species-wide level, it has cer­tainly worked for us to have sci­ence among us, to build us phys­i­cal tools. Those phys­i­cal tools have done far more for us than the men­tal tools of any tribe’s magic.

But on the in­di­vi­d­ual level? The most uber-sci­en­tific are plagued by pro­cras­ti­na­tion and akra­sia. Un­mo­ti­vated.

It’s some­times said that, out­side of the lab, a sci­en­tist thinks no more sci­en­tifi­cally than a layper­son.

Is that be­cause they have failed? Or...have they got the se­cret? They are mas­ters of both wor­lds, perform­ing sci­ence for the sake of how it blesses hu­man­ity, but act­ing as nor­mal ma­gi­ci­ans and good tribe mem­bers in their per­sonal life. And they do it be­cause it WORKS BETTER.

Has their sci­en­tific train­ing failed to pen­e­trate deep enough into it them? Or has it gone ex­actly far enough, far enough that they know how to op­er­ate the ma­chin­ery of the idea fac­tory, but not so far as to weaken their will, sap their mo­ti­va­tion, or ruin their re­la­tion­ships. Not so far as to leave them as mug­gles with­out magic.

Of course, it’s all on a spec­trum, any­way. No­body re­ally has no magic at all, it’s just that some have less magic, or have differ­ent magic. Some be­lieve in gods and ghosts, oth­ers in at­trac­tion and des­tiny, and oth­ers in rights and morals.

Wait, but do ALL of those re­ally come from magic? Well...they don’t come from sci­ence. If we meet aliens among the stars, we can be con­fi­dent they will already know about and agree with us on sci­ence and math, but they won’t agree with us on these things. Be­cause these things don’t come from sci­ence, math, or logic. We crafted them to­gether like the good tribal ma­gi­ci­ans we are.

Yes, they are magic. There are cer­tain differ­ences be­tween them, but they still be­long to the same nat­u­ral cat­e­gory.


And then there’s “truth above all else.” Facts first. In­tel­lec­tual hon­esty. Bear­ing the truth. Want­ing to be­lieve X if true and dis­be­lieve X if false. What are these but one more kind of magic?

Ah, but they in­ter­act with re­al­ity in a cer­tain way, and we know that that way is spe­cial be­cause cars go and planes fly and it WORKS, bitches.

Yes, but that’s a tool-based jus­tifi­ca­tion, isn’t it? Science can’t jus­tify these ideals. We jus­tify them be­cause they work.

And they do. Some­times, in some situ­a­tions. But if they only work third-best in a cer­tain situ­a­tion? If there are al­ter­na­tive mag­ics we could use to, for ex­am­ple, mo­ti­vate or ward off akra­sia. What then? You know, we used “be­cause it works” to jus­tify the ra­tio­nal­ist rules, but by that very mea­sure, the ra­tio­nal­ist rules are to be set aside.

So, is there some other rule, which tells us to use the ra­tio­nal­ist rule even when it is only the third-best for a cer­tain task?

Well, yes. There’s tribal loy­alty. There’s ce­ment­ing an iden­tity, there’s rit­u­al­is­ti­cally act­ing as if a rule is in­vi­o­lable so that, as one of the few who do not vi­o­late it, the rule judges you and finds you wor­thy. One of the few wor­thy.

So, yes, act­ing like a rule is always cor­rect and then obey­ing the rule al­lows you to cre­ate a feel­ing of val­i­da­tion, even if the rule doesn’t pro­duce max­i­mum util­ity. That’s true of ra­tio­nal­ist rules and also of the other...mag­i­cal...rules...

Which I’m not here to knock down. Val­i­da­tion and mean­ing are of­ten in short sup­ply, and we want all the tricks we have to gen­er­ate them.

But if “it works best” isn’t the jus­tifi­ca­tion, and “it works ac­cept­ably and val­i­dates me to make up for what it lacks” is some­times pick­ing up the slack, then the ques­tion is, why not just switch to treat­ing the best rule as the sacro­sanct one, and be­ing val­i­dated by that rule in­stead?
Best of both wor­lds, right? Max­i­mum util­ity and you still get to feel good about fol­low­ing the “real” im­por­tant rules.

Of course, it might be hard to switch which rules you au­to­mat­i­cally feel good for fol­low­ing, but in prin­ci­ple, this would be a su­pe­rior stance to adopt.

We want epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity and also in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity, but if what I’ve writ­ten is cor­rect, then these two are so differ­ent that they are some­times op­posed to each other, no mat­ter that they both have half of their names in com­mon. Max­i­mum epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity doesn’t pro­duce max­i­mum in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity.

Or does it? I just don’t know of any ev­i­dence, that’s all. Is there some I don’t know about?

The most in­stru­men­tally ra­tio­nal peo­ple don’t seem to be max­i­mally epistem­i­cally ra­tio­nal. Nor vice-versa. I see quite lit­tle over­lap be­tween the two groups, ac­tu­ally.

And anec­do­tally, it ac­tu­ally seems like the more epistem­i­cally ra­tio­nal you are, the more you start talk­ing about akra­sia, hmm...

So maybe you have to bal­ance them, or out­right choose be­tween. So, wait a minute. What was the jus­tifi­ca­tion for hold­ing fac­tual ac­cu­racy as the supreme value again? Ac­tu­ally, how do you jus­tify ANYTHING ex­cept on in­stru­men­tal means?

And if the pur­sue-max­i­mum-util­ity value sys­tem says to pur­sue prag­ma­tism, but the facts-are-supreme value sys­tem says not to pur­sue prag­ma­tism, how do you choose be­tween them, if not by check­ing which one gets bet­ter re­sults? Utility.

You choose ac­cord­ing to util­ity...

and mo­men­tum. Mo­men­tum, as we hold on to the mean­ing we cur­rently ex­tract from fol­low­ing the rules that say to es­chew prag­ma­tism, but...which mean­ing we could also get if we just switched to valu­ing prag­ma­tism.

And also ob­tain more util­ity be­sides. Find mo­ti­va­tion and so­cial flex­i­bil­ity. Pur­sue plans and not just make them. Learn to kick and not just to punch. Not to just be­lieve in in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity, but to con­quer it.