Pratchett, Rationality, and Winning

Pratch­ett’s lec­ture at Trinity

For a long time, I’ve been du­bi­ous about “ra­tio­nal­ity is win­ning”. While it pro­tects against one dan­ger­ous line of thought (I was right! It’s just that the uni­verse didn’t co­op­er­ate), it fails to men­tion a time scale—some­times you lose be­fore you win. And some­times you wan­der around for a while with no ap­par­ent pur­pose, and then you find some­thing un­likely and valuable.

Pratch­ett’s lec­ture in­cludes a de­scrip­tion of his early life, and I don’t think any ra­tio­nal per­son or any ra­tio­nal par­ent would have seen his early life as any sort of sen­si­ble goal-seek­ing, or likely to lead to win­ning in any sense.

Pratch­ett was a fairly bad stu­dent, though he did bet­ter when he had less com­pe­ti­tion. He read all the bound vol­umes of Punch (the ma­jor Bri­tish satiri­cal mag­a­z­ine), and learned from that clas­sic.

He be­came a re­porter for a lo­cal news­pa­per, a job with mod­est sta­tus and low salary. (In one of his nov­els, he men­tions the vo­ra­cious ap­petite of a news­pa­per—it’s got to have news ev­ery day. Some­how, this seemed more in­tensely true than the large num­ber of other sen­si­ble things he said in his books. Looks like I was on to some­thing.)

It seems to me that LW-style ra­tio­nal­ity would have had him work­ing on be­ing a bet­ter stu­dent and look­ing for ways to make more money early on, and he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have writ­ten Disc­world.

On the other hand, Eliezer is do­ing quite well, and on yet an­other and pos­si­bly grip­ping hand, I doubt that go­ing for in­creas­ing the prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess would have started with “think re­ally hard about ex­is­ten­tial risks”.