Epistemic Caution and Instrumental Rationality

I sometimes frequent the rationality forum Less Wrong. It’s been suggested, rather famously on this forum, that rationality isn’t about having true beliefs, but rather its about “winning”. Systematized winning. This is instrumental rationality – the critical path to achieving one’s goals. True beliefs are often useful to this goal, but an obsession with “truthiness” is seen as counter-productive. The brilliant scientist or philosopher may know the truth, yet be ineffective. This is seen as unacceptable to many who see instrumental rationality as the critical path to achieving one’s goals. Should we all discard our philosophical obsession with the truth and become “winners”?

The River Instrumentus

You are leading a group of five people away from deadly threat which is slowly advancing behind you. You come to a river. It looks too dangerous to wade through, but through the spray of the water you see a number of stones. They are dotted across the river in a way that might allow you to cross. However, the five people you are helping are extremely nervous and in order to convince them to cross, you will not only have to show them its possible to cross, you will also need to look calm enough after doing it to convince them that it’s safe. All five of them must cross, as they insist on living or dying together.

Just as you are about to step out onto the first stone it splutters and moves in the mist of the spraying water. It looks a little different from the others, now you think about it. After a moment you realise its actually a person, struggling to keep their head above water. Your best guess is that this person would probably drown if they got stepped on by five more people. You think for a moment, and decide that, being a consequentialist concerned primarily with the preservation of life, it is ultimately better that this person dies so the others waiting to cross might live. After all, what is one life compared with five?

However, given your need for calm and the horror of their imminent death at your hands (or feet), you decide it is better not to think of them as a person, and so you instead imagine them being simply a stone. You know you’ll have to be really convincingly calm about this, so you look at the top of the head for a full hour until you utterly convince yourself that the shape you see before you is factually indicitative not of a person, but of a stone. In your mind, tops of heads aren’t people – now they’re stones. This is instrumentally rational – when you weigh things up the self-deception ultimately increases the number of people who will likely live, and there is no specific harm you can identify as a result.

After you have finished convincing yourself you step out onto the per… stone… and start crossing. However, as you step out onto the subsequent stones, you notice they all shift a little under your feet. You look down and see the stones spluttering and struggling. You think to yourself “lucky those stones are stones and not people, otherwise I’d be really upset”. You lead the five very greatful people over the stones and across the river. Twenty dead stones drift silently downstream.

When we weigh situations on pure instrumentality, small self deception makes sense. The only problem is, in an ambiguous and complex world, self-deceptions have a notorious way of compounding eachother, and leave a gaping hole for cognitive bias to work its magic. Many false but deeply-held beliefs throughout human history have been quite justifiable on these grounds. Yet when we forget the value of truth, we can be instrumental, but we are not instrumentally rational. Rationality implies, or ought to imply, a value of the truth.

Winning and survival

In the jungle of our evolutionary childhood, humanity formed groups to survive. In these groups there was a hierachy of importance, status and power. Predators, starvation, rival groups and disease all took the weak on a regular basis, but the groups afforded a partial protection. However, a violent or unpleasant death still remained a constant threat. It was of particular threat to the lowest and weakest members of the group. Sometimes these individuals were weak because they were physically weak. However, over time groups that allowed and rewarded things other than physical strength became more successful. In these groups, discussion played a much greater role in power and status. The truely strong individuals, the winners in this new arena were one’s that could direct converstation in their favour – conversations about who will do what, about who got what, and about who would be punished for what. Debates were fought with words, but they could end in death all the same.

In this environment, one’s social status is intertwined with one’s ability to win. In a debate, it was not so much a matter of what was true, but of what facts and beliefs achieved one’s goals. Supporting the factual position that suited one’s own goals was most important. Even where the stakes where low or irrelevant, it payed to prevail socially, because one’s reputation guided others limited cognition about who was best to listen to. Winning didn’t mean knowing the most, it meant social victory. So when competition bubbled to the surface, it payed to ignore what one’s opponent said and instead focus on appearing superior in any way possible. Sure, truth sometimes helped, but for the charismatic it was strictly optional. Politics was born.

Yet as groups got larger, and as technology began to advance for the first time, there appeared a new phenomenon. Where a group’s power dynamics meant that it systematically had false beliefs, it became more likely to fail. The group that believing that fire spirits guided a fire’s advancement fared poorly compared with those who checked the wind and planned their means of escape accordingly. The truth finally came into its own. Yet truth, as opposed to simple belief by politics, could not be so easily manipulated for personal gain. The truth had no master. In this way it was both dangerous and liberating. And so slowly but surely the capacity for complex truth-pursuit became evolutionarily impressed upon the human blueprint.

However, in evolutionary terms there was little time for the completion of this new mental state. Some people had it more than others. It also required the right circumstances for it to rise to the forefront of human thought. And other conditions could easily destroy it. For example, should a person’s thoughts be primed with an environment of competition, the old ways came bubbling up to the surface. When a person’s environment is highly competitive, it reverts to its primitive state. Learning and updating of views becomes increasingly difficult, because to the more primitive aspects of a person’s social brain, updating one’s views is a social defeat.

When we focus an organisation’s culture on winning, there can be many benefits. It can create an air of achievement, to a degree. Hard work and the challenging of norms can be increased. However, we also prime the brain for social conflict. We create an environment where complexity and subtlety in conversation, and consequently in thought, is greatly reduced. In organisations where the goals and means are largely intellectual, a competitive environment creates useless conversations, meaningless debates, pointless tribalism, and little meaningful learning. There are many great examples, but I think you’d be best served watching our elected representatives at work to gain a real insight.

Rationality and truth

Rationality ought to contain an implication of truthfulness. Without it, our little self-deceptions start to gather and compond one another. Slowly but surely, they start to reinforce, join, and form an unbreakable, unchallengable yet utterly false belief system. I need not point out the more obvious examples, for in human society, there are many. To avoid this on LW and elsewhere, truthfulness of belief ought to inform all our rational decisions, methods and goals. Of course true beliefs do not guarantee influence or power or achievement, or anything really. In a world of half-evolved truth-seeking equipment, why would we expect that? What we can expect is that, if our goals are anything to do with the modern world in all its complexity, the truth isn’t sufficient, but it is neccessary.

Instrumental rationality is about achieving one’s goals, but in our complex world goals manifest in many ways – and we can never really predict how a false belief will distort our actions to utterly destroy our actual achievements. In the end, without truth, we never really see the stones floating down the river for what they are.

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4 comments

  1. It is interesting that you mention that organizations that have truer beliefs tend to be more successful. When seen from a bird’s eye, the world at large has many similarities with the mind, or more precisely the brain. Because what is the brain but a society of neurons?

    1. I agree that there is many similarities. If you think about the early stages of an organism transitioning from single-celled to multicelluar, then there’s quite a few parallels to be had with human society (developing a “brain”, cooperation etc. etc.). I always like to stay agile with drawing analogies, so I imagine there are some important differences too that I wouldn’t want to overlook by accident. But the comparison is defeintely there.

  2. I agree that the tension between “truth” and “winning” is perhaps the most interesting debate subject on LW. Even MIRI’s founder and MIRI’s director don’t agree on whether self deception is useful or harmful.

    I also like the observation that competition (in the absence of truth being the arbiter, i.e. betting markets) can reduce truth-seeking. I wonder if written arguments are better at avoiding that than oral dialogue. When you’re convincing people face to face there is much more room for manipulation (charisma, tone of voice, matching emotions) than when you’re writing a document with citations. Would the justice system be more just if all arguments were presented in blog form?

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