Instrumental Rationality is a Chimera

Eliezer observes, “Among all self-identified “rationalist” communities that I know of, and Less Wrong in particular, there is an obvious gender imbalance—a male/​female ratio tilted strongly toward males.” and provides us with a selection of hypotheses that attempt to explain this notable fact, ranging over the normal cultural and biological explanations for male/​female imbalances in any community. One important point was missing however, a point raised by Yvain last week under the title, Extreme Rationality: It’s Not That Great. That fact is that we have not done anything yet. Eliezer writes under the assumption that women ought to want to study our writings, but since we have so far failed to produce a single practical application of our rationalist techniques, I really cannot blame women for staying away. They may be being more rational than we are.

Long have we pondered Eliezer’s enigmatic homily, “Rationalists should win.” and like the aristoteleans of old we agreed that it must be so, since a proclivity to win is inherent in the definition of the word “rationalist”.

Well, have you won anything lately? Are the horizons of your power expanding, you rationalist Übermenschen? Perhaps you will say, “We have only just gotten started! We are pregnant with potential, if not abounding with achievements.”

I do not mean to be impatient but it has been a few weeks now and we appear to be spinning our wheels a little tiny bit. As interesting as many of the posts here have been, I cannot recall any of them having been instrumentally useful to me, or anyone else here mentioning posts that have been instrumentally useful to them. In fact it almost seems as if most of the posts contributed by the Less Wrong community have been about the Less Wrong community. These self-referential meta-posts accumulate, and as they become increasingly impenetrable they discourage potential contributors of either sex.

Since the confusion caused by this notion of instrumental rationality shows no signs of abating, I will attempt to cut the knot. There is no such thing as instrumental rationality. What is the rational way to butter toast? Brew coffee? Drive a car? Raise a child? Conduct a particle physics experiment? You will notice that the unifying feature among these examples is that there is no unifying feature among these examples. Rationality – real world, day to day, nine to five rationality – is entirely context dependent. The attempt to develop a grand unified theory of instrumental rationality is an attempt to abstract away from the details of inidividual circumstances, in order to come up with a Best Way To Do Everything Forever. This is untenable. Rationality can be used to choose the best course of action for achieving a particular goal, but this is simply an example of knowing the truth – epistemic rationality.

I think that we have been on the wrong track, up until now. I believe we can do better, but first we must abandon the silly martial arts metaphors. You do not need academic-grade rationality every second of the day and you do not need to pretend that you are the only rational person in the world. Co-operate. In order to live rationally and live well, we must have easy access to organised expert domain knowledge in useful areas such as self-motivation, health and fitness, development of social skills, use of technology and of course, the abstract rules of epistemic rationality. I am sure there is much more that could be added to this list. To achieve this I suggest that, like an economy, we subdivide and specialise. Rather than racking their brains in an attempt to come up with something novel to say on the topic of abstract rationalism, we should encourage contributors to tell us about something they specialise in, to give us advice backed by evidence and reasoned argument about something they know a lot about, and to direct us to useful references wherein we may learn more. I imagine people contributing a guide to getting accurate medical information, tips on child psychology and raising children, or an essay on how to exercise to increase longevity.

Clearly, we have a group of interested, motivated, highly intelligent people here at Less Wrong, each of whom has their own particular talent, so why not make the most of them?