Tag Archives: Rationalism

More Wrong (AKA Oops)

It’s not as close as I thought. I should know better than to broadcast a blanket statement like that while I’m still reading through material.

This isn’t to say I disagree with the Less Wrong consensus on everything, of course; it still matches my belief system more closely than your average random blog. But still.

Caveat: the chunk below is not-well-thought out and kind of ranty. Take with salt.

There is a certain kind of intelligence which seems to lead people astray, particularly on the internet, particularly amongst the technically-inclined. You will find these people writing long screeds on matters of philosophy, science, and Truth, often on high-falutin blogs like this one (I consider myself a recovering member of this class of people). They tend to self-identify as (techno-)libertarians, neoreactionaries, “rationalists”, or other similar terms. They tend, on the whole, to be individually extremely intelligent.

This does not prevent them from making idiots of themselves.

The pattern, as it seems to go (from observation of myself as well as popular occurrences like Yudkowsky, Moldbug, Thiel, Graham, and Rhinehart) starts with the demanding of consistency from their value system. It is intolerable, to a mind so capable of understanding how the world works systematically and predictably, that ethics, and other matters of axiology, do not follow the same mold.

Of course the obvious way to achieve ethical consistency is to declare one moral principle higher than any other, and then follow it through to every insane-but-logical conclusion. Sometimes the principle itself is a generally well-regarded one (preference-utilitarianism for Yudkowsky, libertarianism for Thiel and to a lesser extent Graham) while sometimes even that is questionable. Moldbug seems to be working off of some bizarre notion that natural selection somehow grants moral status, and Rhinehart has taken on efficiency as an end in itself.

Regardless of the chosen path, the principle is rigidly and rigorously applied (what else would you expect from highly intelligent systemic thinkers?) until it becomes a self-defeating ad absurdum. And then some. Every bit of it neatly internally consistent and evidence-backed, if you accept the initial axiological premise. And every bit of it defended by an intellect whose identity is tied up in *being* an intellect.

Throw in a tendency to speculate on things they/we know nothing about and you end up with some really scary-weird worldviews, in people who are *absolutely* convinced of both their epistemic correctness and their ethical virtue. Fortunately it’s not like most of these people end up as cult leaders and/or billionaires, right?

Rationalism and Certainty

The question of what constitutes or defines knowledge is another big problem in philosophy, and on its own forms what is called epistemology. I leave aside (for now) the central epistemic questions in order to discuss certain common perspectives; I will return to the broader questions in a few days.

Rationalism is, loosely defined, the view that knowledge and truth come from reason, logic, etc. By taking axiom #8 we are inherently taking what is at least a partly rational view, although there is somewhat more to it than that. However, on its own this axiom gives us a whole slew of tools in the category of what I shall call “logical systems”. These include propositional and predicate logic, algebra, set theory, probability and all the other systems that are strictly abstract (despite possible practical applications).

The critical point is that these systems are only tools. While they do produce internal “truths” (such as the statement that two plus two is four), all of these internal truths are at root truths by definition. Even the weirder, hard-to-prove theorems do eventually fall out of starting definitions; that’s how we define a proof. More interestingly, these tools give us methods of “lossless” operation on existing truths. The logical form of modus ponens takes two truths and produces a third truth of the same strength; no certainty is lost in the deduction.

These tools are extremely powerful, but like all tools they are useless on their own; they require raw materials to operate on. There are perhaps certain interesting facts that can be derived from our core set of eight axioms, but I would be very surprised if you could get very far (I have not even bothered to try). Instead, we need some other system to generate facts for us to operate on. Next time I will look at where we can get raw materials to feed our rational tools.