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The quokka is a meme animal that lives on Bald Island on the SW coast of Australia, where it has no natural predators. If you visit this island, it will fearlessly walk up and try to hug you. Why am I telling you this? Because the eye of Sauron has fallen on the rationalists
There was a time in the past when I considered myself to be one of them. Rationalism arose out of a particular cultural moment, when new atheism made people realize that they actually wanted to believe in something strongly, even if that thing was phrased as a negative
This sounds like a paradox. New atheism became popular precisely because so many young people were lacking in any kind of creed or doctrine; it sold itself as a belief system, it had an obvious enemy, and it captured the free religious energy of many "post-christians"
But that capture was fleeting, because most people can't worship a void. In a moment like this anyone who can speak in the rabbinical mode can found a cult, even by accident. This was Eliezer Yudkowsky, or "Big Yud", a name whose qabbalistic implications we are still working out
Rationalists are, in Scott Alexander's formulation, missing a mood, or rather, they are drawn from a pool of mostly men who are missing one. "Normal" people instinctively grasp social norms without having them explained. Rationalists lack this instinct
In particular, they struggle with small talk and other social norms around speech, because they naively think words are a vehicle for their literal meanings. Yud's sequences help this by formalizing the implicit decisions that normal people make
There is a certain type of nerd who really, really can't pick up on social cues, can't read intentions. It's overly reductive to tar this kind of person as "autistic". It's a large number of men, highly comorbid with mathematical aptitude
The quokka, like the rationalist, is a creature marked by profound innocence. The quokka can't imagine you might eat it, and the rationalist can't imagine you might deceive him. As long they stay on their islands, they survive, but both species have problems if a human shows up
In theory, rationalists like game theory, in practice, they need to adjust their priors. Real-life exchanges can be modeled as a prisoner's dilemma. In the classic version, the prisoners can't communicate, so they have to guess whether the other player will defect or cooperate.
The game changes when we realize that life is not a single dilemma, but a series of them, and that we can remember the behavior of other agents. Now we need to cooperate, and the best strategy is "tit for two tats", wherein we cooperate until our opponent defects twice
The problem is, this is where rationalists hit a mental stop sign. Because in the real world, there is one more strategy that the game doesn't model: lying. See, the real best strategy is "be good at lying so that you always convince your opponent to cooperate, then defect"
And rationalists, bless their hearts, are REALLY easy to lie to. It's not like taking candy from a baby; babies actually try to hang onto their candy. The rationalists just limply let go and mutter, "I notice I am confused". This is also why they are poly.
All this comes off as mean but I empathize, because I was once like them. Yud teaches you a mental model of how people behave when you desperately need one, framed in terms that are familiar. When you don't know how people work at all, a bad model is still a huge improvement
Rationalists = quokkas, this explains a lot about them. Their fear instincts have atrophied. When a quokka sees a predator, he walks right up; when a rationalist talks about human biodiversity on a blog under almost his real name, he doesn't flinch away
A normal person learns from social cues that certain topics are forbidden, and that if you ask questions about them, you had better get the right answer, which is not the one with the highest probability of being true, but the one with the highest probability of keeping your job
This ability to ask uncomfortable questions is one of the rationalist's best and worst attributes, because mental stop signs, like road stop signs, actually exist to keep you safe, and although there may be times one should disregard them, most people should mostly obey them
This is especially obvious when rationalists try to talk about love and sex, because their missing instincts cause them to create social hellscapes where everyone tries to act as if their true desires are exactly the ones they are able to articulate
Apropos of the game theory discussion above, if there is ONE thing I can teach you with this account, it's that you have evolved to be a liar. Lying is "killer app" of animal intelligence, it's the driver of the arms race that causes intelligence to evolve
It's not just that you evolved to lie, it's that you evolved to lie to yourself, because the best liar is the one who believes his own deceptions. And contra the rationalists, this isn't something you can overcome with a bunch of data and studies
But in fact you CAN overcome your own proclivity to self-deception, and the answer isn't a new thing, it's an old thing, an irrational thing. It's learning to put rationality in its proper place.
The practices and moral norms that have endured for thousands of years are better at making predictions than bayes' theorem ever could be, because they have evolved in parallel, adversarially, to your ability to lie
When Eliezier stopped preaching, Scott Alexander became the rightful caliph. Religion atrophies without ritual reinforcement of doctrine. Without Yud, rationalists splintered into many groups. They are rather less bullish on rationality now, but most of them are still quokkas
There are rationalists who came for the math, and let yud backdoor them into broken moral theories. There are rationalists who came for the gay moral theory and put up with the math. Post-rats tend to be the latter sort.
The main way that you stop being a quokka is that that you realize there are people in the world who really want to hurt you. There are people who will always defect, people whose good will is fake, whose behavior will not change if they hear the good news of reciprocity
The rationalists often express a desire to become stronger, but the one thing this never, ever means is that you should go to the gym and lift weights. But this is the real secret to escaping quokka-hood.
The rationlist complains of "akrasia" -- an inability to accomplish things, or he struggles with his own failure to live up to his standards of logic. But his problems are grounded, not in his mind, but in his body. When the body is rotten, the mind produces only toxic miasma.
Becoming physically strong is the cure for basically every mental illness in men, such as depression or philosophy. Frailty begets sophistry. Physical ugliness begets mental ugliness.
How did I stop being a quokka? When your body is strong, your mind becomes strong, and you can accept, in the words of DH Lawrence, that the soul is a dark forest.
Your soul is a dark forest. Your known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. Gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. You must have the courage to let them come and go.
Arguments about epistemology, or about the meaning of life, these are questions for sick men. Only sick men look for the meaning of life, or for meaning in life, because true vitality justifies itself.
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