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?