[David Chapman] Resisting or embracing meta-rationality

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Excerpting the intro. Follow the link for the rest.

Meta-rationalism may provoke skepticism or hostility at first. It contradicts fundamental rationalist principles that you may hold explicitly, or that you may have absorbed implicitly, from technical education and the culture of technical work.

Alternatively, meta-rationality may seem intriguing, if implausible and incomprehensible. Then you may ask:

  • Is there really anything to this?

  • If so, what kinds of problems can I solve with it that I couldn’t deal with rationally? (I bet there aren’t any!)

  • What principles of rationality does meta-rationality contradict? (Rational principles are absolute truths, so I don’t see how meta-rationality could have better ones.)

  • How can I learn the supposed meta-rational methods, if they’re worth anything?

These questions are natural and rational. They also miss the point, and therefore make it impossible to understand what meta-rationality is:

  • You are already doing meta-rationality all the time. You can’t do rationality without it. “What there is” to meta-rationalism is discovering that you mostly do meta-rationality mindlessly, and therefore ineptly. Then you can learn to do it better.

  • Meta-rationality isn’t about solving problems; that’s what rationality is for. Meta-rationality can help you use rationality more effectively. By understanding problems and potential solution approaches in broader contexts, you become more likely to solve them—but you’ll do that rationally. You’ll also get better at deciding which problems are worth solving, and effective ways of dealing with problems other than “solving” them.

  • Meta-rationality doesn’t run on principles. Demanding that it does makes it impossible to learn.

  • Meta-rationality also doesn’t have methods.

Meta-rationality is a different kind of thing from rationality, so you can’t learn it the same way. You learn rationality by getting principles and methods from lectures or textbooks, and then working through toy exercise problems. That won’t work for meta-rationality.