A Rational Education

Within the next month I will be en­rol­ling in an(other) un­der­grad­u­ate uni­ver­sity course. This be­ing the case I must make a se­lec­tion of both course and ma­jor. While I could make such de­ci­sions on im­pul­sive un­con­scious prefer­ence satis­fac­tion and guess­work on what sub­jects hap­pen to provide the most value I could also take the op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress the de­ci­sion more ra­tio­nally and ob­jec­tively. There are some rele­vant ques­tions to ask that I know LessWrong read­ers can help me an­swer.

  1. Which sub­jects and courses can make the best con­tri­bu­tion to Epistemic Ra­tion­al­ity?

  2. Which sub­jects and courses provide the most In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity benefits?

  3. Given all available in­for­ma­tion about the uni­verse and what in­fer­ences can be drawn about my prefer­ences and abil­ities what course struc­ture should I choose?

  4. Which course do you just hap­pen to like?

1. Which sub­jects and courses can make the best con­tri­bu­tion to Epistemic Ra­tion­al­ity?

I hap­pen to care about Epistemic Ra­tion­al­ity for its own sake. Both for me per­son­ally and in those whom I en­counter. It is Fun! This means that I like both to add new in­for­ma­tion to my Map and to de­velop skills that en­hance my gen­eral abil­ity to build and im­prove upon that map.

Not all knowl­edge is cre­ated equal. While whole posts could be ded­i­cated to what things are the most im­por­tant to know. I don’t want to learn gi­gabytes of statis­tics on sport perfor­mances. I pre­fer, and may be tempted to ar­gue that it is fun­da­men­tally bet­ter, to learn con­cepts than facts and in par­tic­u­lar con­cepts that are the most re­lated to fun­da­men­tal re­al­ity. This in­cludes physics and the most ap­pli­ca­ble types of math­e­mat­ics (eg. prob­a­bil­ity the­ory).

For some types of knowl­edge that are worth learn­ing uni­ver­sity is not a de­sir­able place to learn them. Philos­o­phy is Fun. But the philos­o­phy I would learn at uni­ver­sity is too in­fluenced by tra­di­tional knowl­edge and pay­ing rent to im­pres­sive figures. The op­ti­mal be­hav­ior when study­ing or re­search­ing philos­o­phy is not to Dis­solve the Ques­tion. It is to con­vey that the ques­tion is deep and con­tentious, af­fili­ate with one ‘side’ and do bat­tle within an ob­so­lete and sub­op­ti­mal way of Carv­ing Real­ity. My frank opinion is that many philoso­phers need to spend more time pro­gram­ming, cre­at­ing simu­lated re­al­ities, or at least do­ing math­e­mat­ics be­fore they can hope to make a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion to thought. (I’m voic­ing a po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tion here that I know some would agree with but for which I am also invit­ing de­bate.)

There are some sub­jects that are bet­ter served for im­prov­ing think­ing it­self as well as merely learn­ing ex­ist­ing thoughts. I’ll list some that spring to mind but I sus­pect some of them may be red her­rings and there are oth­ers you may be able to sug­gest that I just haven’t con­sid­ered.

2. Which sub­jects and courses provide the most In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity benefits?

Fun is great, so is hav­ing ac­cu­rate maps. But there are prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions too. You can’t have fun if you starve and fun may not last too long if you are un­able to con­tribute di­rectly or fi­nan­cially to the efforts that en­sure the fu­ture of hu­man­ity. Again there are two con­sid­er­a­tions:

  • What learn­ing fa­cil­i­tates mak­ing In­stru­men­tally Ra­tional choices (ei­ther in the ab­stract or prac­ti­cal sense)? The pre­vi­ously men­tioned courses are rele­vant and sub­jects like game the­ory nat­u­rally spring to mind.

  • What learn­ing ac­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tates achiev­ing some­thing use­ful or oth­er­wise fulfilling one’s CEV? In many cases this will be en­tirely differ­ent to the sub­jects I have men­tioned.

3. Given all available in­for­ma­tion about the uni­verse and what in­fer­ences can be drawn about my prefer­ences and abil­ities what course struc­ture should I choose?

This is an in­vi­ta­tion to Other-Op­ti­mize me. Please give me ad­vice. Re­mem­ber that giv­ing ad­vice is a sig­nal of high sta­tus and as such is of­ten an en­joy­able ex­pe­rience to en­gage in. This is also a rare op­por­tu­nity—you may be pa­tron­iz­ing and I will not even re­spond in kind or with a curt dis­mis­sal. You can even be smug and con­de­scend­ing if that is what it takes for me to ex­tract your in­sights!

Now, I should note that my de­ci­sion to do an­other un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree is in no way based on a be­lief that it is just what I need to do to gain suc­cess. I already have more than enough ed­u­ca­tion be­hind me (I have pre­vi­ously stud­ied IT, AI and teach­ing).

  • My source of in­come is some­thing that I do in­de­pen­dently and is not some­thing that uni­ver­sity at­ten­dance will un­duly in­terfere with (es­pe­cially since I can take a lap­top to lec­tures).

  • Work­ing en­tirely in­de­pen­dently does not satisfy the hu­man need to be en­gaged in co­op­er­a­tive en­deavor. In the long term this can in­terfere with both work perfor­mance, pro­voke Akra­sia and diminish satis­fac­tion. I do not par­tic­u­larly like work­ing in an office. Study­ing (and prob­a­bly tu­tor­ing) is ideal.

  • Do­ing some­thing that you are re­ally, re­ally good at that also gives so­cial recog­ni­tion is psy­cholog­i­cally benefi­cial. Sit­ting ex­ams is a more effi­cient way for me to satisfy the need for recog­ni­tion than at­tempt­ing to win at office poli­tics.

  • “Full Time” study is not at all “full time” for me. It is more like a part time hobby.

(Call bul­lshit on that if you think I am ra­tio­nal­iz­ing or be­lieve there are bet­ter al­ter­na­tives to give me what you in­fer from here or el­se­where that I want.)

Now, as­sum­ing that I am go­ing to be study­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate course, which course max­i­mizes the ex­pected benefit?

Some­thing I am con­sid­er­ing is a dou­ble ma­jor Bach­e­lor of Science(phar­ma­col­ogy, math­e­mat­i­cal statis­tics). Re­cent con­ver­sa­tions that I have par­ti­ci­pated in here give an in­di­ca­tion as to my ex­ist­ing in­ter­est in phar­ma­col­ogy. I have some plans in mind that would con­tribute to fur­ther­ing hu­man knowl­edge on non-patented phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sub­stances. In par­tic­u­lar life-ex­ten­sion drugs and nootrop­ics. This is an area that I be­lieve is dras­ti­cally over­looked, to the ex­tent of be­ing species wide neg­li­gence. Con­sider this to be a sig­nifi­cant goal that I want my study­ing to con­tribute to.

The most effec­tive con­tri­bu­tion I can make there will likely in­volve lev­er­ag­ing fi­nan­cial re­sources that I earn el­se­where but I mostly have fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions cov­ered. I also want to en­sure I know what is go­ing on and know what needs to be done at a de­tailed level. That means learn­ing phar­ma­col­ogy. But it also means learn­ing statis­tics of some sort. What statis­tics should I learn? Should I fo­cus on im­prov­ing my un­der­stand­ing of Bayesian statis­tics or should I im­merse my­self in some more ad-hoc fre­quentest tools that can be used to look im­pres­sive?

4. Which course do you just hap­pen to like?

What other sub­jects are rele­vant to the sort of con­cepts we like dis­cussing here? Per­haps some­thing from so­ciol­ogy or psych? I have breadth sub­jects I need to fill, which gives me the chance to look at some top­ics in some­what more depth than just a post (but some­times pos­si­bly less depth than a whole post se­quence!) I’m also rather cu­ri­ous which sub­jects like-minded peo­ple just wish they had a chance to study. If you were trapped in the SGC in a ground­hog day time loop which top­ics would you want to learn?