A note on “instrumental rationality”

[The following is a footnote that I wrote in a longer document.]

I’m focusing on epistemic rationality. That’s not because instrumental rationality isn’t real, or isn’t part of the art, but because focusing on instrumental rationality tends to lead people astray. Instrumental rationality has a way of growing to absorb any and all self help, which dilutes the concept to uselessness. “Does it help you win?” If so, then it’s instrumentally rational! [ 1 ]

While the art cannot exist for its own sake, it must be in service of some real goal, I claim that the motions of attempting to systematically change one’s map to reflect the territory are central to the kinds of systematized winning that are properly called “rationality.”

I declare that rationality is the way of winning by way of the map that reflects the territory.

There may very well be other arts that lead to more-or-less domain-general systematic winning by another mechanism, either orthogonal to rationality (e.g. good sleep habits, spaced repetition, practices to increase one’s willpower) or actively counter to rationality (e.g. intentionally delusional self confidence). Not all practices, or even all mental practices, that contribute to success ought to be called “rationality”. [ 2 ]

The ontological commitment that all practices that produce success should count as rationality commits one to either adopting anti-epistemology and not-epistemology as part of rationality, as long as they work, or distorting one’s categories to deny that those practices “actually work.”  This seems like an epistemic error, first and foremost, and/or is a pragmatically unhelpful categorization for people that want to coordinate on a rationality project.

These failure modes are not hypothetical. I’ve observed people to label any and all productivity hacks or cool “mind practices” as rationality (often without much evaluation of whether they does, in fact, help you win, much less whether they helps you attain more accurate beliefs). And I’ve likewise observed people deny that Donald Trump is successful at accomplishing his goals.

It might be that there are arts that work that are counter to rationality, and that I give up the potential power in the cultivation of my art. If so, I would like to see that clearly.

Rationality refers to a specific set of practices and virtues. There are other practices and other virtues, many of which are worth cultivating. But we do ourselves a disservice by calling them all “rationality.”

And, further, I make the empirical pedagogical claim that the way to instrumental rationality, as I am using the term, is through the diligent practice of epistemic rationality. So that is where would-be rationality developers should focus their efforts, at least at first.


[ 1 ] –  Note the difference between “it is instrumentally rational” and “it is instrumental rationality.” And, as is often the case, Eliezer presaged this year ago. But in practice, these tend to bleed together. Helpful, or just cool, practices get absorbed into “rationality”, because rationalists, are disproportionally the kind of people that like playing around with mental techniques. I am too!

Further, I think Eliezer’s criterion for instrumental rationality, read literally, is not strict enough, since it could include, in principle, Mythic Mode, or affirmations, or using your chakras, or Tarrot reading, as “cognitive algorithms”. And in practice, these do get included under the term.

(And maybe on due consideration, we will think that chakras, or any other bit of woo, are meaningfully real, and that practices that depend on them are properly part of the art of the map that reflects the territory! I’m not ontologically committed to them not being part of the art, either. But their being real is not sufficient criterion to be included in the art.)

[ 2 ] – A concept that is useful here is “applied psychology”. Anki, Trigger Action Plans, or social accountability are applied psychology. Saying oops, murphyjitsu, fermi estimates, or a particulare TAP to ask for an example are (applied) rationality. I have rely on many practices that are applied psychology but not applied rationality.

I don’t claim that this is a perfectly crisp distinction. The two categories blend into each other, and most applied rationality does depend on some applied psychology for implementation. But I think it is helpful to recognize that not all techniques that involve your mind are “rationality.”

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