The 12 Virtues of Rationality

This post is based on these five articles: (2006) (published January 2010) (May 2011) (sep 2013) (June 2015)

Virtue 1 is curiosity. I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s character who invents Ice-9 in Cat’s Cradle. Or of Richard Feynman. Or of the way, when I’m walking through a parking garage and there are three different labels painted on the ground of a parking space, and someone comments that they “make no sense”, I halt everything I’m doing to look for an explanation, and quickly notice that there are numbered labels (which I explain by positing the garage used to have no-ticket kiosk-based paid parking) and also two different versions, (on top each other and in different styles so as to be almost indecipherable) of a character string that means compact cars only. The slight changes in position of the labels reflect that when the lot was updated, new paint was put down and old labels not removed, because the contractors did what they were told to do, and didn’t care if it made any sense. I do all of this without a moment’s irritation, because I’m delighted at a mystery… until the mystery is resolved, at which point I move on without making any effort to preserve the mystery now elucidated. If only every opportunity to apply my curiosity was as pure a mystery… too often mysteries also feel like traps or lures. In Cat’s Cradle Ice-9, after all, destroys the planet.

Virtue 2 is relinquishment. This is where the litany of Tarski is important–do not become attached to beliefs. What the truth can destroy, must be destroyed. One good thought that was unfamiliar (from the MadMike blog link) is that the destruction of a cherished belief can be frightening or exhilarating. From the limited amount of self-help and human psychology I’ve put across my brain so far, my sense is that there is a good deal of choice available–one can choose to train oneself to interpret a state of nervous arousal as nervousness, or as performance anxiety, or to train oneself to interpret it as excitement and even exhilaration.

Virtue 3 is lightness. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe learns “falling leaf” which is a way of being light. I know this virtue. Actually, I usually collapse this with curiosity when I say “real curiosity” or something along those lines. I mean the kind of curiosity that completely diverted my attention in number 1: the kind where a mystery lifts one up in pursuit of evidence and answers is one where one is “light” and does not resist being directed where the evidence leads. I am much lighter on some topics than others, and may have problems of feigned lightness where I suspect it will be a virtue-signal, but that do not run to my actual willingness to follow evidence where it leads. I wonder if I connect lightness with virtue 12, which leaves me with an easy ability to accept evidence that challenges many of my views, but a stubborn tendency (Kvothe’s “heart of stone” level stubbornness, even) to resist some kinds of claims. I sound like an idiot talking about this, which is funny, but I don’t know what I can do about it. It’s a very religious sentiment that keeps me light, but I can be very frustrated with people who are dogmatic about object-level tenets of their faith, which some people have taken (incorrectly, I think) as hostility to religion. I really like this quote, also, “If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.” Lightness is about freeing yourself to accept the constraints of evidence.

Virtue 4 is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” This virtue can challenge me. Another, really good way to express this is to say that arguments should be random walks–if you know your destination, you are already there.

Virtue 5 is argument. One who removes themselves from argument is beyond the help of their friends… one who permits their friends to “help” them with politeness, rather than argument, is trapped, not freed. I’m good at argument, but maybe less good at finding (and remaining politely impolitic with) interlocutors. And I’m often very politic, and spend too much time arguing with people who will not do the work to find anything to challenge me. “The part of yourself that distorts what you say to others also distorts what you say to yourself.” What am I not seeing because I’m arguing (internally and externally) with adjustments to be polite and politically correct?
The last article proposes modifying this with “community” where that means a community of arguers. That seems like a one-step recipe for kicking these benefits all into high gear, in comparison with which “argument” seems quite weak, though the core virtue here is closer to argument, not community. If you find the right community, the value will be extremely high, but  replace “community” with “cult” and you see why the core virtue “argument” needs to remain at the core.

Virtue 6 is empiricism. The root of our knowledge is a willingness to “look and see”–that is, what counts as knowledge is what enables us to be surprised. And actually getting evidence is our only reliable umpire.

Virtue 7 is simplicity. I think I often fail to challenge myself to be simple, because I can eliminate the need via urging myself toward “precision” or “perfectionism” and likewise can avoid the challenges of rooting out errors or thinking precisely in the name of “simplicity.” There is tension here–a loophole through which I drive an oxcart, daily.

Virtue 8 is humility. There is much room for me to grow here. What steps am I taking to ensure that, when I make mistakes, I will notice and correct them? So far, I keep a diary of my plans for each day, and so keep some loose record of how I do at beating akrasia… and not much more. This does not simply mean “admit when wrong” (that’s relinquishment and, to a lesser degree, lightness) it means “take steps to ensure that your inevitable wrongness is brought to your attention sooner rather than later, and that you are ready to adjust to your wrongness.”

Virtue 9 is improvement (aimed at perfection). Any error tolerated is a level beyond which you will not progress. That said, this should feel like self-improvement, an ennobling activity, not like self-flagellation, hence the word “perfect” and its variants are helpful in pointing toward every error as an opportunity for growth, but the starting framework should be one of improvement.

Virtue 10 is precision. Do not move toward the truth, but rather make your next movement precisely, entirely there. There will then be new evidence and a new step, again precisely and entirely to the truth. Otherwise you can be like xeno, spending many or even infinite steps on one journey, only to discover on arrival at that truth that it is a starting point, not a destination. I recognize this virtue, though I have been doing little in its service. I have started tracking certain personal metrics with precise numbers, which seems a good step toward aiming for precision, but I have a long way to go. I often take half-measures toward implementing lessons, which I recognize is a failure to embrace this virtue.

Virtue 11 is scholarship. Multiple disciplines are essential, particularly this list: “Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory.” Never any limit to growth in this direction, but that probably also means this is the easiest virtue to make into a hole into which one may fall. There is a world out there.

Virtue 12 is unnamed. At one point as a younger man, I would call it something like being on your Songline. But I do not expect that to be helpful. This is essential, and I do not know how to talk about it, though it seems I am well above average at talking about this, I do not know what good “above-average” is–this is rather an all-or-nothing, unspeakable thing. Perhaps the simplest conceptualization of it relates to having a total forgiveness of one’s past mistakes, and a total awareness that more mistakes are very likely, and yet a total unwillingness to ask for forgiveness (which is to say, permission to do less than what maximizes for free/beautiful/love/true) in the present moment, or to settle for half-measures. Rather, the present must be seized entirely, and no quarter given.

Edited lightly 24 Jan 2017.

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