Buckets and memetic immune disorders

An­naSala­mon’s re­cent post on “flinch­ing” and “buck­ets” nicely com­ple­ments PhilGoetz’s 2009 post Rea­son as memetic im­mune di­s­or­der. (I’ll be as­sum­ing that read­ers have read Anna’s post, but not nec­es­sar­ily Phil’s.) Us­ing Anna’s ter­minol­ogy, I take Phil to be talk­ing about the dan­gers of merg­ing buck­ets that started out as sep­a­rate. Anna, on the other hand, is talk­ing about how to deal with one bucket that should ac­tu­ally be sev­eral.

Phil ar­gued (para­phras­ing) that ra­tio­nal­ity can be dan­ger­ous be­cause it leads to be­liefs of the form “P im­plies Q”. If you con­vince your­self of that im­pli­ca­tion, and you be­lieve P, then you are com­pel­led to be­lieve Q. This is dan­ger­ous be­cause your think­ing about P might be in­fected by a bad meme. Now ra­tio­nal­ity has opened the way for this bad meme to in­fect your think­ing about Q, too.

It’s even worse if you rea­son your­self all the way to be­liev­ing “P if and only if Q”. Now any cor­rup­tion in your think­ing about ei­ther one of P and Q will cor­rupt your think­ing about the other. In terms of buck­ets: If you put “Yes” in the P bucket, you must put “Yes” in the Q bucket, and vice versa. In other words, the P bucket and the Q bucket are now effec­tively one and the same.

In this sense, Phil was point­ing out that ra­tio­nal­ity merges buck­ets. (More pre­cisely, ra­tio­nal­ity cre­ates de­pen­den­cies among buck­ets. In the ex­treme case, buck­ets be­come effec­tively iden­ti­cal). This can be bad for the rea­sons that Anna gives. Phil ar­gues that some peo­ple re­sist ra­tio­nal­ity be­cause their “memetic im­mune sys­tem” re­al­izes that ra­tio­nal think­ing might merge buck­ets in­ap­pro­pri­ately. To avoid this dan­ger, peo­ple of­ten op­er­ate on the prin­ci­ple that it’s sus­pect even to con­sider merg­ing buck­ets from differ­ent do­mains (e.g., re­li­gious scrip­ture and per­sonal life).

This sug­gests a way in which Anna’s post works at the meta-level, too.

Phil’s ar­gu­ment is that peo­ple re­sist ra­tio­nal­ity be­cause, in effect, they’ve iden­ti­fied the two buck­ets “Think ra­tio­nally” and “Spread memetic in­fec­tions”. They fear that say­ing “Yes” to “Think ra­tio­nally” forces them to say “Yes” to the dan­gers in­her­ent to merged buck­ets.

But Anna gives tech­niques for “de-merg­ing” buck­ets in gen­eral if it turns out that some buck­ets were in­ap­pro­pri­ately merged, or if one bucket should have been sev­eral in the first place.

In other words, Anna’s post es­sen­tially de-merges the two par­tic­u­lar buck­ets “Think ra­tio­nally” and “Spread memetic in­fec­tions”. You can go ahead and use ra­tio­nal think­ing, even though you will risk in­ap­pro­pri­ately merg­ing buck­ets, be­cause you now have tech­niques for de-merg­ing those buck­ets if you need to.

In this way, Anna’s post may diminish the “memetic im­mune sys­tem” ob­sta­cle to ra­tio­nal think­ing that Phil ob­served.