joe moon

Rationality Engine

Paul Graham’s essay on disagreement, the discussion C-Rob started here, an interview with Jeff Atwood I heard recently, and a comment by Jake on GReader got me thinking about debate, though really more about how debate is sort of an implementation of rationality. Rationality, I think, is sort of self-evidently important, but not easy. Humans have natural cognitive biases that are hard to recognize, especially in oneself. Also, so much of our collective brainpower and discussion is spent/wasted on faulty arguments and corrections thereof. We could spend so much more of our cognition and time more effectively if we could cut the argumentational fat.

So, how to learn to think more rationally? I idly peruse sites like Less Wrong and Overcoming Bias and I often find the articles to be interesting, but they’re very often dry, difficult to digest, and even more difficult to apply.

I think part of the problem is that while these places (and, I’m sure, others) provide explicit/declarative knowledge, they don’t provide implicit/procedural knowledge.

Proposal: Rationality Fu[^1]

I would like to see a rationality engine, a collaborative, pedagogical tool to encourage rational thinking. I think it would consist of the following components:

  1. Khan Academy-style classes to teach the explicit concepts to include:

    1. Symbolic logic
    2. Logical fallacies.
    3. Cognitive biases.
    4. Statistics/statistical analysis.
  2. Exercises to test and enforce understanding.

  3. A game system[^2] to include:

    1. Experience/karma and rank (or belts).
    2. Achievements/badges.
  4. A discussion engine like the one C-Rob and I discussed to include:

    1. Symbolically logical statement templates in which you can plug words to make an argument.
    2. Threaded conversation with configurable/visualizable views.

Thinking in terms of symbolic logic can facilitate emotional disengagement from a discussion, so that we can recognize our mistakes and biases more clearly, and concede wrongheaded points more readily. I think knowing about logical fallacies and cognitive biases doesn’t necessarily help us avoid them and I believe that thinking is action, and rationality is habit. Having a system of discussion that exposes the underlying mechanics of ideas can make our everyday thinking more clear and more precise.

Higher-performance climbing shoes can improve your climbing but getting stronger and learning technique are more pertinent and effective. Similarly, we have many tools available to us to augment our thinking, but more effective and more important would be for us to improve the generative power: thinking itself.

I think we’ve harvested the low-hanging fruit of our cognitive symbiosis with the internet. Time to climb the tree.[^3]


[^1]: Think fu? Brain fu?

[^2]: In the above-mentioned interview, Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Q&A site Stack Exchange talks about how a little bit of gamification encouraged the collaborative creation of an incredibly rich (the richest?) resource for programmers, both as a static repository for knowledge and as a place to get help from other users of the site.

[^3]: Obviously a very small subset of the population at large would be at all interested in this idea, but I think it largely overlaps the set of people who like to think about difficult things to think about, as well as the set of people who like to debate things online.