Postrationality, Table of Contents

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!

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22 Responses to Postrationality, Table of Contents

  1. Kevin says:

    Well I’m eager to read this series of posts!

    TBH I hadn’t heard the term “postrationalism” until I saw it on Scott’s map, so I don’t know how much I can offer, other than an account of what resonates with me and what doesn’t. I don’t have much stake in defining this term (I like to live on the fringes ;), so I’m offer this comment up in the spirit of, “Here’s some data; make use of it as you see fit.”

    Here are some of the statements from your post that I see as part of my “project”:

    * “Postrationality understands that emotions and intuitions are often better at decision-making than explicit conscious reasoning…. Therefore, postrationality tends to favor solutions… that make System 1 more effective, instead of trying to make System 2 do all the work.”
    * “Postrationalists tend to enjoy exploring new worldviews and conceptual frameworks.”
    * “Postrationalists like (and often participate in) rituals.”

    Some statements, on the other hand, aren’t part of my own attitude at all. E.g.:

    * “Postrationalists are more likely to reject scientific realism.”
    * “Postrationalists don’t think that death, suffering, and the forces of nature are cosmic evils that need to be destroyed.” Personally I’m not much of a crusader, but I wholeheartedly support the life extensionists, cryonicists, effective altruists, etc. I’m not opposed to helping ameliorate existential angst, but I would choose material improvements first.

    I see my own project as a kind of bridge-building between the rationalists and the broader, more conventional, System-1-oriented culture. Both have valuable insights (or conventional wisdom) that the other “side” doesn’t seem to fully appreciate, largely for lack of translators :).

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Thanks for the response! This was exactly the sort of thing I was interested in hearing.

      For context: the word “postrationality” has been tossed around casually for a couple of years on IRC, during which it’s meant various different things. In particular, Will Newsome seems to have a different definition than the one I’m using, but I’m not entirely sure what it is.

      Anyway, I probably should have made it clearer in the post: the bullet-pointed list was describing a prototypical postrationalist as I understand the term, not trying to list entry criteria for the movement or anything like that (especially since there is no “postrationalist movement”, at least not yet). So I’m glad you don’t place much store in my definition.

      Your agreements and disagreements are roughly what I expected based on your writings. There’s only one thing that surprises me: you’re a scientific realist? I was not expecting that at all! I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts on this.

      Your last paragraph is the most interesting to me, since I’ve been thinking a lot about communication styles lately, and ways of conveying information. In particular, I was thinking that a postrationalist communication style might need to be more surreal and incomprehensible, with concepts less clearly defined; this results in a very different way of acquiring information and integrating it into one’s worldview, in ways that relate to “Sneaking Past the Gatekeeper”. I was talking to nydwracu the other day about rationalist vs. postrationalist writing styles, and he compared this to the stylistic differences between analytic and continental philosophy. Basically, the fewer ideas that a text states explicitly, the more intuitive your engagement with it will have to be. This can intensify your emotional engagement with the ideas, but it makes it harder to afterwards generate clear formal definitions of what you have learned. (Have you read a book called The Little Schemer? It teaches Scheme in the intuitive, “postrationalist” style, which is something I’ve always found fascinating.)

      So anyway, after thinking about all this, I found myself wondering: if postrationalist writing is mysterious and surreal, if it uses narratives and mythology rather than clear logical essays, then what am I doing writing all these clear logical essays? And my answer was that I’m trying to communicate with the rationalist community, and this is the style of writing that has the best chance of getting through to people. (Though I did end up creating a Tumblr so that I could explore a more surrealist style of writing.)

      Anyway, since you mention the issue of translation between rationalists and the mysterious ordinary world of System 1, I may end up doing a post at the end of this series on differing communication styles. (Although the obscure/surrealist style that I’m talking about is not mainstream like football games or dancing in clubs or anything like that, so I’m not sure how much it relates to the phenomena you’ve investigated. But hopefully the post will still be interesting.)

      P.S. I read your article on advertisements last night; it was fascinating! I had never thought of that explanation before, but in retrospect it seems obvious. I think that’s the mark of something being a good idea. =)

  2. whales says:

    Looking forward to this series. It’s probably not the label for me, but I’m very sympathetic to a lot of what you’re describing.

    I’ve also gotten the sense that there’s a difference in how postrationality reasons about complex systems in general. Something like a movement away from methodological reductionism, although that seems to not quite capture it. Probably related to some of the other things you mention.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Interesting! I have no intuitions on how rationalists and postrationalists differ in their thinking about complex systems, so I’d be curious to hear more, if/when your intuitions solidify.

      I will say, however, that learning about complex systems has had an enormous effect on my worldview, particularly on my life philosophy and my spirituality. I should write about this in more detail at some point, but basically, my shift in worldview was a lot like the one that Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind. I went from looking at individual interactions in isolation to looking at the entire web of interactions; prior to this, I was just completely missing the larger patterns formed by the individual interactions. And this changed my political opinions in ways similar to the ones Haidt described; and it also changed my understanding of my place in the world.

      But complex systems seem to be pretty popular in general lately? In particular, Scott Alexander has been doing an astoundingly good job describing and reasoning about them. Do Scott’s complex systems posts demonstrate the sort of “movement away from methodological reductionism” that you mention?

      • whales says:

        Yeah, I’d say Scott’s moving in one possible direction, although I’m not sure how successful those posts are, if we’re thinking about the same ones. I’m not so familiar with Haidt, but that sounds interesting. I tend to have a lot to say about this kind of thing so I’ll try not to ramble.

        So one might say that even if naive rationality is right about what it holds as fundamental, those fundamentals and the tools they suggest are either bad anchors or actively misleading signposts as far as everyday experience, because of how real-world complexity with all of its feedback and nonlinearity and collective behavior gets in the way of reduction to the fundamentals. (This is close to a “scientism” critique, maybe with a touch of “eternalism” via David Chapman.)

        Like, utilitarianism need not entail that the best method for acting morally involves calculations of snapshots of the world’s expected total pleasure or pain. This is obvious enough that the rationalist mainstream has moved towards two-level utilitarianism for humans, and has embraced “complexity of value” as one of its core ideas. Still, holding utilitarianism as fundamental leads to difficulties in practice—it anchors you to things that look obviously like naturalistic attributes of a freeze-frame that might easily be translated into continuous functions of one variable (like happiness and suffering, as opposed to aesthetics or virtue or justice or tragedy or overcoming). A postrationalist might find it expedient to simply weigh anchor, whether they find VNM compelling or not (and I think they’d be more likely not to, but that’s another thing entirely).

        And I have a sense of something similar going on in theory of mind, and to some extent in thinking about relationships, discourse, communities, and society (where in these cases I don’t think the rationalist mainstream has ventured as far from the default reductionism). It’s not so much that ontological reductionism in itself need be discarded as that it anchors one to methodological reductionism, in which the actual best way to approach complex systems is to understand or explain them in terms of more fundamental levels, rather than maybe to instead describe or relate to them and in not-obviously-reducible ways. And from that position one can’t help but expect reductions to be straightforward, from easily describable high-level patterns to individual low-level mechanisms via linear pathways, and to expect systems to be more similar than different. So one might have good reason to lose the allergy to “emergence” and apparent irreducibility and non-explanations, and doing so effectively might require action that’s drastic from the rationalist standpoint.

        As an aside, it’s hard for me to tell what counts as a break from rationality. Rationality is kind of defined to claim for its own anything that’s true or anything that works, so anywhere anyone successfully departs from the community might just be less naive rationality, or rationality with different priors about what’s true or useful. I suspect many of the community’s shared beliefs and practices are better attributed to the cultural accident of being drawn from a modern-atheist-internet-techie crowd, plus the idiosyncratic influence of prominent members, than to any “methods of rationality” themselves. So when I say “rationalist position” I’m never sure whether I’m talking about an intellectual or cultural consequence (even if it’s something philosophical like “utilitarianism”) and I doubt that’s even a good dichotomy. Maybe you have something related in mind when you mention factual/attitude disagreements.

        OK, so much for being brief and focused! I hope this at least makes sense without any really concrete examples :) I haven’t spent much time talking to self-identified (or even other-identified) postrationalists so I could be way off the mark.

  3. Derek Lorian says:

    I had only heard the term in passing a couple times, and in context its meaning seemed clear enough and I didn’t really question it, so when I saw my blog placed near the lands of “postrationality” on the map along with other blogs I like, I wondered, “What does this really mean?” To my dismay, Google was of no help. So I’m glad that you are discussing this and look forward to the future posts. I’m also happy to add my own thoughts as I think the term has merit.

    I find myself in broad agreement with your definition, with a few minor exceptions and possible additions to items in the tendencies list.

    I don’t see why postrationalists would be more likely to reject scientific realism; they might well reject scientific materialism (which is now apparently called ‘metaphysical naturalism’), but the idea that science works and describes the real world with ever better models doesn’t seem objectionable, unless the claim is made that that’s the only way to gain knowledge about the world, but that doesn’t seem to be a claim of scientific realism. I could describe myself as a scientific realist and also a spiritual realist, without any sense of conflict in my mind.

    It doesn’t seem likely to me that a postrationalist would necessarily be more inclined than anyone else to enjoy surrealistic art; but they should be able to understand it, and they likely enjoy art in general, being able to approach it from System 1 and letting System 2 step out of the way when appropriate. I’m not convinced that philosophical positions imply aesthetic values. Nor do I think it makes much sense to characterize “postrationalist writing” as necessarily surreal and mysterious; it could be, or it could be highly formal, or some sort of mix, all depending on circumstance. The main characteristic of the postrationalist, as I see it, is the ability and inclination to use both intuition and reason adaptively, rather than to exalt one above the other. Postrationality isn’t anti-rationality; it’s rationality+.

    Like Kevin, I think that prioritizing material improvements over subjective ones makes sense, although subjective problems shouldn’t be ignored either. On the other hand, I certainly “don’t think that death, suffering, and the forces of nature are cosmic evils that need to be destroyed.” Such a position would be evil, in my view, if it weren’t so silly and futile. But I think this has more to do with biophobia and the death throes of the myth of progress, rather than a failure to integrate intuitive thinking.

    I also think whales is on to something about a different approach to complex systems and a skepticism towards reductionism being related.

    Some other hypothetical tendencies:

    • Postrationalists are more likely to agree with ‘bounded rationality’.
    • Postrationalists are more likely to agree with ‘religious naturalism’.
    • Postrationalists are more likely to have had a spiritual experience.
    • Postrationalists are more likely to play a musical instrument.
    • Postrationalists are more likely to create art or write poetry.
    • Postrationalists, while likely to engage in rituals, practice magick, and meditate, will not be likely to have a weak (or no) conceptual framework for why and how they do those things.
    • Postrationalists are not gullible; listening to their intuitions does not make their critical faculties dysfunctional.

    The idea that people are, or should try to be, perfect reasoning machines has been around for a long time, and so the subject is also connected to epistemological rationalism and its natural rivals – empiricism and romanticism. I see the epistemology of postrationality combining all three, like a system of checks and balances. Of course, this epistemological triune of philosophy (rationalism), science (empiricism), and religion (intuition/romanticism) is not at all new; humans have been mixing them for as long as humans have been around. The use and development of all three modes is typically found in occult philosophies, which might explain the postrationalist attraction to ritual, spirituality, and magick. In this sense, I see postrationality as a potential corrective not just to modern trends in rationality, but to errors of the Enlightenment and of rationalism all the way back to Pythagoras.

  4. Tony says:

    I’m noting distinct stylistic and content similarities to the saner strands of occultism.

  5. nydwracu says:

    Other things that might be part of postrationality:
    * Attention to semantics and exosemantics; rhetorical analysis; framing.
    * Emphasis on social context: thedes, ritual, music.
    * Aversion to legibility; attention to the loss in lossy compression; appreciation of the complexity of systems.
    * Intentional perspective-modification. Reality-tunnel switch-shock. #haileris
    * Awareness that words do not reduce to single, objective denotations.

    • Kevin says:

      +++ to all these things. (except that, in my own idiosyncratic case, I have a fetish for legibility, and a distinct averse to illegibility.) p.s. what is exosemantics? is it different from pragmatics?

      • nydwracu says:

        A speaker’s words say something not only about whatever the speaker is talking about, but also about the speaker and his context. That’s the exosemantic content.

        Pronoun choice is a good example. Adherence to the common Indo-European rule marks one as old-fashioned these days. I could say “…and their context” to show that I’m unconcerned with register, or “…and her context” to signal feminism, or any of a wide array of coined pronouns to show that I have read and like some writer who used them before. Leary, IIRC, used “s/he” and “hir”; Tumblr likes “ze” and “zir”; and so on. The denotative meaning is exactly the same, but the exosemantics are completely different.

        It would be a lot easier to come up with examples if English had more word pairs like that, with denotations close enough that word choice isn’t going to be motivated primarily by denotative meaning. Some languages in Asia have sets of words where word choice is motivated by formality. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be pairs — using jargon signals familiarity with the relevant field and so on.

  6. Nyan Sandwich says:

    Awesome. I’ve been identifying as postrationalist for a while now, but was not aware of the heritage and the rest of the community. Your definition sounds right and I recently wrote something very similar.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      The “heritage” is four months old and the community is nascent, but yay, glad you found me/us. I read your article (I assume you mean the one on MoreRight) and enjoyed it, though I’d have to reread it in order to comment on it properly.

      You (and everyone else) are invited to join us on IRC: we are #chapelperilous on freenode. I’ve enjoyed a bunch of things you’ve written, so it would be nice to have you there (though I fully understand if you want to avoid the time-sink that is IRC).

  7. William Eden says:

    As a point of historical fact, this incarnation of “postrationality” is not the first to exist – and indeed the current version has likely benefitted / inherited from considerable contact with the previous proponents!

    There was a now-defunct mailing list / meetup group known as Optimeta, which included me and Divia, along with Steve Omohundro, Nevin Freeman, Nick Tarleton, Yoni Donner, Justin Shovelain, Matt Bell, Marcello Herreshoff, Luke Grecki, and other assorted folks in the rationality/futurist community. We definitely had explicit conversations with Will Newsome et al around this time period. Post-rationality was first coined in April 2011 by Yoni, and various folks from the list adopted it. Several descriptions included:

    “Post-rationalism sees the classical view as naive, not because rationality is not an ideal (as many people wrongly claim with statements such as rationality opposes emotions and rationalists are cold inhuman decisionmakers), but because in its classic form, it simply does not work for real people.

    Post-rationalism is about practical rationality, combining the study of rationality with the study of man. Through understanding human biases and the way the human mind works we can achieve our rational goals far better than by directly pursuing them under assumptions of perfect classical rationality.”


    “For me it is the desire to move beyond *mere* rationalism. I’m sure we all know very rational people whose souls seem dead. Somehow the view that rationalism is all one needs to aspire to seems to leave one disconnected from much that is human.

    But, like you say, that is quite a different thing from prerationalism. Quite different from not understanding the scientific method, logical inference, or Bayesian induction. Learning to become more rational is of great value, to recognize cognitive biases, to develop a better reasoning facility, to become facile in detecting fallacies. But it’s just a start.”

    and my own:

    “IMO, post-rationalism is just rationalism done correctly. I think the label serves to dissociate our cluster of ideas from a number of bad habits which arise out of an aesthetic preference for truth. One example is ignoring valuable information because it is surrounded by terrible explanations. Another example is pointing out every instance of everyone else being wrong, despite this requiring significant time and raising the costs of being wrong (thus reducing experimentation).

    We generally separate rationality into two forms: epistemic rationality (map matches the territory) and instrumental rationality (achieving our goals). Status is obtained in the current rationalist community through achieving higher levels of epistemic rationality, because we are united around that truth aesthetic. Post-rationalism instead values winning, and winning requires developing a number of different skills, of which epistemic rationality is just one vital component.”

    Many of us continued to use the terminology periodically, and we’ve certainly been pushing many of these memes in the community in the intervening years without even using the term itself. I used the term “post-rationality” by name in my post from March 2013:

    Incidentally, you proposed a list of three upcoming blog posts, which almost perfectly mirror my own three-part series ending in Beyond Rationality!

    Maybe this is convergent evolution, or maybe the memes have continued to propagate under various guises, but either way they continue to reach common canonical conclusions. If this is indeed convergent evolution, I’m even more encouraged both about this direction and my original conclusions. Certainly it seems to me to be the natural evolution of this memeplex, and a powerful and beneficial development!

    I admit that I am hoping the early pioneers of these memes are recorded for posterity. If this incarnation does rise to fixation, perhaps this comment will ensure that our contributions are not entirely forgotten. :)

  8. scott says:

    Question (if you are still monitoring this thread)–

    What is the difference between this and plain old anti-rationalism (i.e. Eric Voegelin, Michael Oakeshott)?

    I have been reading for some time about anti-rationalist ideas on the blog of Gene Callahan. This does not really sound all that different, & if your ‘pedigree’ (or whatever you want to call it) includes thinkers like those, that would definitely be something to acknowledge/embrace/advertise/ etc. Smart cookies, those two.

  9. Not sure I’ll self-describe with the term, but I’m definitely in favour.

    My critiques of rationalism are through rationalism. The System 1/2 interplay is definitely key. Cutting with the grain is easier than cutting against. Habit formation allows one to rotate the board. See also John Gray’s diminishing cognition model of Daoist right living.

    I never ended up broaching the subject on my ribbonfarm run, but I’ve been seriously contemplating the notion of reintroducing paganism as a form of negotiating lay discussions of complex phenomena. Scott Alexander’s meditations on Moloch struck a chord but I was already halfway down that path. Some of the preliminary results can be seen in the Be Slightly Evil cards (second set):

    Socially, it takes the form of a sort of Realpolitick, combined with what I call methodological moral antirealism: instead of considering someone evil or stupid, imagine the axioms and values under which that behaviour would be compatible. Phenomenologically, it means incorporating the chrono- and thermopolitics that constrain the realizability in the world of political aspirations that ignore the effects of entropy or margin. When I’m tired and sick, I’m literally not the same person and will not behave the same as when I’m feeling well and well-rested. Extending this understanding to others constitutes empathy. Knowing how to use it is power.

    These are stubs, but it’s just a great feeling to stumble across places like this where tossing even one of these ideas out isn’t met with uncomprehending stares.

  10. Anand Jeyahar says:

    Reblogged this on Just another complex system and commented:
    Looks like I fall somewhere on the postrationality camp.. Not sure what relevance it has to my activities.

  11. Matthew Light says:

    You guys are so much more interesting than the LW / Bayes religion crowd!

    I came across Meaningfulness a couple days ago on a link from Tyler Cowen and have now read most of Meaningfulness, and though I disagree with some of the specifics, feel he has a superb grasp on the changes that the internet has brought to our culture and society, which are very helpful for my own map-making projects and efforts to be of use to this world. Looking forward to reading the rest of the “postrationalsphere” and see what other insights are on tap!

  12. Well I really liked studying it. This information procured by you is very constructive for correct planning.

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