A couple of weeks ago, Scott Alexander posted a map of the rationalist community, and much to my delight, I’m on it! Specifically, I’ve been placed in the country of Postrationality, alongside Meaningness, Melting Asphalt, Ribbonfarm, and A Wizard’s Word. This is truly an illustrious country, and I’m honored to be a member of it.
But anyway, as a result of this map, a lot of people have been asking: what is postrationality? I think Will Newsome or Steve Rayhawk invented the term, but I sort of redefined it, and it’s probably my fault that it’s come to refer to this cluster in blogspace. So I figured I would do a series of posts explaining my definition.
As you might imagine, postrationality has a lot in common with rationality. For instance, they share an epistemological core: both agree that the map is not the territory, and that concepts are part of the map and not part of the territory, and so on. Also, the two movements share some goals: both groups want to get better at thinking, and at achieving their object-level goals.
But the movements diverge in the way that they pursue these goals. In particular, rationality tends to give advice like “ignore your intuitions/feelings, and rely on conscious reasoning and explicit calculation”. Postrationality, on the other hand, says “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”.
For instance, rationalists really like Kahneman’s System 1/System 2 model of the mind. In this model, System 1 is basically intuition, and System 2 is basically analytical reasoning. Furthermore, System 1 is fast, while System 2 is slow. I’ll describe this model in more detail in the next post, but basically, rationalists tend to see System 1 as a necessary evil: it’s inaccurate and biased, but it’s fast, and if you want to get all your reasoning done in time, you’ll just have to use the fast but crappy system. But for really important decisions, you should always use System 2. Actually, you should try to write out your probabilities explicitly and use those in your calculations; that is the best strategy for decision-making.
Postrationality recognizes that System 1 and System 2 (if they even exist) have different strengths and weaknesses, and what we need is an appropriate interplay between the two. Postrationality understands that emotions and intuitions are often better at decision-making than explicit conscious reasoning (I’ll discuss this in more detail in the second post). Therefore, postrationality tends to favor solutions (magick, ritual, meditation) that make System 1 more effective, instead of trying to make System 2 do all the work.
Here are some other things that seem to be true of postrationalists:
- Postrationalists are more likely to reject scientific realism.
- Postrationalists tend to enjoy exploring new worldviews and conceptual frameworks (I am thinking here of Ribbonfarm’s “refactoring perception”).
- Postrationalists don’t think that death, suffering, and the forces of nature are cosmic evils that need to be destroyed.
- Postrationalists tend to be spiritual, or at least very interested in spirituality.
- Postrationalists like (and often participate in) rituals and magick.
- When postrationalists are trying to improve their lives/the world, they tend to focus less on easily quantified measures like income, amount of food, amount of disease, etc., and instead focus on more subjective struggles like existential angst.
- Postrationalists enjoy surrealist art and fiction.
This may seem like a rather disjointed list, so one of the purposes of this series will be to show how these tendencies all fit together, and in particular how they all derive from the basic postrationalist attitude towards life.
My current plan is to include three posts in this series (which I’ll link to as they become available):
- A post explaining the rationalist perspective, including the System 1/System 2 model of the mind, the need to overcome bias using our analytic reasoning skills, and a strange form of Bayesianism where people actually try to do explicit calculations with their subjective probabilities.
- A post explaining why the rationalist perspective is misguided.
- A post examining the attitudes held by the two communities. This will be the most important post, since at the heart of it, rationality vs. postrationality is not a factual disagreement, but a disagreement of attitude. I will try to show how the postrationalist attitude (one of accepting the world and our own humanity) gives rise to the bullet-pointed list of tendencies that I showed above.
As a final note, I should probably mention: this definition of postrationality is purely my own. In particular, it does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the other Postrationalists on Scott’s map. So if you’re on that map, and you think the definition of postrationality should be different than the one I’m giving here, then I hope you will leave a comment and let me know!