(Roughly) Daily

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”*…

Descartes, the original (modern) Rationalist and Immanuel Kant, who did his best to synthesize Descartes’ thought with empiricism (a la Hume)

As Robert Cottrell explains, a growing group of online thinkers couldn’t agree more…

Much of the best new writing online originates from activities in the real world — music, fine art, politics, law…

But there is also writing which belongs primarily to the world of the Internet, by virtue of its subject-matter and of its sensibility. In this category I would place the genre that calls itself Rationalism, the raw materials of which are cognitive science and mathematical logic.

I will capitalise Rationalism and Rationalists when referring to the writers and thinkers who are connected in one way or another with the Less Wrong forum (discussed below). I will do this to avoid confusion with the much broader mass of small-r “rational” thinkers — most of us, in fact — who believe their thinking to be founded on reasoning of some sort; and with “rationalistic” thinkers, a term used in the social sciences for people who favour the generalised application of scientific methods.

Capital-R Rationalism contends that there are specific techniques, drawn mainly from probability theory, by means of which people can teach themselves to think better and to act better — where “better” is intended not as a moral judgement but as a measure of efficiency. Capital-R Rationalism contends that, by recognising and eliminating biases common in human judgement, one can arrive at a more accurate view of the world and a more accurate view of one’s actions within it. When thus equipped with a more exact view of the world and of ourselves, we are far more likely to know what we want and to know how to get it.

Rationalism does not try to substitute for morality. It stops short of morality. It does not tell you how to feel about the truth once you think you have found it. By stopping short of morality it has the best of both worlds: It provides a rich framework for thought and action from which, in principle, one might advance, better equipped, into metaphysics. But the richness and complexity of deciding how to act Rationally in the world is such that nobody, having seriously committed to Rationalism, is ever likely to emerge on the far side of it.

The influence of Rationalism today is, I would say, comparable with that of existentialism in the mid-20th century. It offers a way of thinking and a guide to action with particular attractions for the intelligent, the dissident, the secular and the alienated. In Rationalism it is perfectly reasonable to contend that you are right while the World is wrong.

Rationalism is more of an applied than a pure discipline, so its effects are felt mainly in fields where its adepts tend to be concentrated. By far the highest concentration of Rationalists would appear to cohabit in the study and development of artificial intelligence; so it hardly surprising that main fruit of Rationalism to date has been the birth of a new academic field, existential risk studies, born of a convergence between Rationalism and AI, with science fiction playing catalytic role. Leading figures in existential risk studies include Nicholas Bostrom at Oxford University and Jaan Tallinn at Cambridge University.

Another relatively new field, effective altruism, has emerged from a convergence of Rationalism and Utilitarianism, with the philosopher Peter Singer as catalyst. The leading figures in effective altruism, besides Singer, are Toby Ord, author of The Precipice; William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better; and Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell and blogger at Cold Takes.

A third new field, progress studies, has emerged very recently from the convergence of Rationalism and economics, with Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison as its founding fathers. Progress studies seeks to identify, primarily from the study of history, the preconditions and factors which underpin economic growth and technological innovation, and to apply these insights in concrete ways to the promotion of future prosperity. The key text of progress studies is Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments

I doubt there is any wholly original scientific content to Rationalism: It is a taker of facts from other fields, not a contributor to them. But by selecting and prioritising ideas which play well together, by dramatising them in the form of thought experiments, and by pursuing their applications to the limits of possibility (which far exceed the limits of common sense), Rationalism has become a contributor to the philosophical fields of logic and metaphysics and to conceptual aspects of artificial intelligence.

Tyler Cowen is beloved of Rationalists but would hesitate (I think) to identify with them. His attitude towards cognitive biases is more like that of Chesterton towards fences: Before seeking to remove them you should be sure that you understand why they were put there in the first place…

From hands-down the best guide I’ve found to the increasingly-impactful ideas at work in Rationalism and its related fields, and to the thinkers behind them: “Do the Right Thing,” from @robertcottrell in @TheBrowser. Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason


As we ponder precepts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Hormel went public with its own exercise in recombination when it introduced Spam. It was the company’s attempt to increase sales of pork shoulder, not at the time a very popular cut. While there are numerous speculations as to the “meaning of the name” (from a contraction of “spiced ham” to “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”), its true genesis is known to only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.

As a result of the difficulty of delivering fresh meat to the front during World War II, Spam became a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet. It became variously referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meatloaf without basic training,” and “Special Army Meat.” Over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end. During the war and the occupations that followed, Spam was introduced into Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific. Immediately absorbed into native diets, it has become a unique part of the history and effects of U.S. influence in the Pacific islands.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

%d bloggers like this: