“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” —Raphael Sabatini, opening line of Scaramouche (1921)
On the other hand, this blog shall be born middling in laughter and with a sense the world is almost too sane.
Laughter is great. Wonder at the world is great. But these things are bombarding us daily and readily accessible on the internet, while I find it much harder to find sources for piecing together how the world works. Since I abide by the law of comparative advantage, I devote this space to that quest.
This blog’s first claim is we want to understand the world.
This blog’s second claim is that viewing the world as not mad, but in fact, quite sane, will give us significant power for discovering the underlying rules that make the world go round.
While I’ll deal with the second in future posts, the first is a clear prerequisite. Luckily, the legwork has already been done for us at the nexus of the rationality blogosphere, LessWrong. If you don’t want to understand the world, I won’t push you. But if you’re on the edge, I’d strongly recommend it.
If anything is very important to you (raising your kids well, saving your friends), the most reliable way to achieve this goal is to understand it very well. You can desire a thing all you want, but unless you’re in a movie, this won’t get you very far. A recent quiz points out how many of the programs we implement toward various social goals — reducing crime, e.g. — actually increase the problems they are trying to fight. More applicable to you specifically, there are a lot of systematic errors humans make when buying insurance and investing money that will cause many people to lose thousands of dollars over their lifetime.
Whether you’re trying to make money, help society, avoid wasting your time on useless endeavors, or do almost anything, understanding it a bit beyond the average level can give you outsized gains. When I advocate rationality, I’m not using “knowledge” and “truth” and “rationality” as end goals in themselves, but as instrumental goals toward some much more important end. If you’re curious or hold truth on a pedestal, this is good, but probably won’t be enough to get you to actually stop making systematic mistakes. You need something more before you shut up and actually devote yourself to rationality. Before you actually rid yourself of bias so you can avoid any of the numerous failure modes plaguing humans across every scale.
As you may be able to tell, this will be a rationality blog.
Before you flee, this is not Spock’s version of rationality so often parodied, but a single commandment and its corollary:
End: achieve your goals.
Means: have your beliefs about the world reflect, as closely as possible, the world’s actual state.
If you don’t care about anything, rationality is probably not right for you. But it is kind of like food: you can get by with very little, but your productivity decreases quickly.
Rationality has had a long and storied history, from Descartes to Leibniz to Korzybski. But the field didn’t progress much past intuition until Kahneman and Tversky kicked off the first wave of modern rationality by finding biases in human thought (there are a lot) and the occasional way to correct them. E.T. Jaynes and other Bayesians expanded the concepts to focus on Bayesian probability theory and formal updates to one’s beliefs, which framework Eliezer Yudkowsky adopted, collected, and expanded upon at LessWrong over several years of blog posts (the best now published as a fantastic e-book). I strongly recommend you read some of LessWrong or the e-book: aside from helping build great thinking habits, it is a fantastic source of concepts that I will make use of time and again.
LessWrong also sparked a diaspora of rationality blogs in various domains, of which this blog aspires to be one. It is now racing after the bandwagon, hopefully soon to be clutching at the rear fender.