Epistemic status: This is a bunch of semi-remembered rephrasings of a conversation.
At the CFAR alumni reunion, John Salvatier and I had a public double crux on my last post.
A double crux is a technique CFAR invented, which I think is much better than a debate. The goal is to simply pin down where exactly two people disagree. This can take a while. Even the best, most respectful debates are adversarial: it’s my opinion vs. yours, and we see which is stronger in an (ideally fair) contest. A double crux is collaborative: we’re just trying to find which is the exact point of contention here, so that if we go on to have an actual debate we won’t be talking past each other.
John’s motivation for disagreeing with my post was that he didn’t think I should be devaluing the intellectual side of the “rationality community”. My post divided projects into into community-building (mostly things like socializing and mutual aid) versus outward-facing (business, research, activism, etc.); John thought I was neglecting the importance of a community of people who support and take an interest in intellectual inquiry.
I agreed with him on that point — intellectual activity is important to me — but doubted that we had any intellectual community worth preserving. I was skeptical that rationalist-led intellectual projects were making much progress, so I thought the reasonable thing to do was to start fresh.
John is actually working on an intellectual project of his own — he’s trying to explore what the building blocks of creative thinking are, and how one can improve it — and he thinks his work is productive/useful, so that seemed a good place to dig in deeper.
I mentioned that by a lot of metrics, his work doesn’t have a lot of output. He has done a lot of one-on-one conversations and informal experiments with people in the community, but there’s no writeup, and certainly no formal psychological research, papers, or collaboration with psychologists. How could an outsider possibly tell if there’s a real thing here?
John said that I might be over-valuing formality. He’s pretty confident that the “informal” phase of work — the part when you’re just playing with an idea, or planning out your strategy, before you sit down to execute — is actually the most important part, in the sense that it’s highest-leverage. After some discussion, I came to agree with him.
I’ve definitely had the experience that creative work is “bursty” — that most days you produce piles of junk, and some days you produce solid gold, whether it’s writing, math, or code. I’ve also heard this from other people, both friends and famous historical figures. It also seems that when something’s going right about your “pre-work” cognitive processes — planning, imagining, even emotional attitudes — you do much better work at the formal, sit-down-and-produce-output stage. Work goes hugely better when the “muse” is friendly.
John additionally believes that it’s possible to “train your muse” to help you work better, and said that learning to do this himself allowed him to contribute much better to open-source software projects (where he built a statistics library.)
He also pointed out that when it comes to dealing with the distant future, general-purpose and speculative cognitive processes will have to be more important than trained skills, because the future will contain unfamiliar situations that we haven’t trained for. People who excel at the sit-down-and-execute activities that help you succeed in your field aren’t necessarily going to be able to reason about the weirdness of a changing world.
(I agreed that the ability to “philosophize” well seems to be much rarer than the ability to execute well; I’ve seen many prominent computer scientists whose theories about general intelligence just don’t make sense.)
So the speculative, philosophical, imaginative stuff that comes before sitting down and executing is important for success, important for humanity, and maybe something we can learn to do better. John certainly thinks so, and wants the rationality community to be a sort of laboratory or nursery for these ideas.
It’s also true that formally executing on these ideas can be really hard, if you define “formally” strictly enough. Here’s Scott Alexander reflecting on the bureaucratic hell of trying to get a psychiatry study on human subjects approved by an IRB — when it only involved giving them a questionnaire! If that’s what it takes to do academic experimental research on humans, I don’t want to claim that anybody who’s thinking about the human mind without publishing papers can be rounded down to “doing nothing.”
That still leaves us with the question of “how do I know — not an IRB, not the ‘general public’, but Sarah, your friendly acquaintance — that you’re making real progress?” I’m still going to need to be shown some kind of results, if not peer-reviewed ones. This is why I’m a fan of blogging and something in the neighborhood of “citizen science.” If a programmer tests the speed of two different programs and writes up the results, code included, I believe them, and if I’m skeptical, I can try to duplicate their results. It’s in the spirit of the scientific method, even if it’s not part of the official edifice of Science(TM).
So, John and I still have an unresolved disagreement about the general status of these “how to think real good” projects in the community. He thinks they’re moving forward; I still haven’t seen evidence that convinces me. This is our “double crux” — both of us agree (the “double” part) that it’s the key (“crux”) to our disagreement.
But I definitely agree with John that if there were promising ways to “think real good” being developed in our community, then it would be important to support and encourage that exploration.
One interesting thing that we had in common was that we both viewed “community” from a strongly individualist standpoint. John said he would evaluate someone as a potential collaborator on a project pretty much the same way whether they were a community member or not — track records for success, recommendations from friends he respects, and so on. The “community” is useful because it’s a social network that sometimes floats cool people to his attention. Deeper notions of tribe or belonging didn’t seem to apply, at least concerning his intellectual aims. He had no interest in kicking people out for not following community standards, or trying to get everybody in the community to be a certain way; if a person considered themselves “part of the community” but John couldn’t see benefit from associating with that person, he just wouldn’t associate. This is not everybody’s point of view — in fact, some people might say that John’s idea of a community is equivalent to not having a community at all. So a lot of the things that seem to spark a lot of debate these days — community standards, community norms, etc — just didn’t show up in this double-crux at all, because neither of us really had strong intuitions about governance or collective issues.
Mostly, I came away with a lot of food for thought about the reflection vs. execution thing. If there’s a spectrum between musing about the thing and doing the thing, I’m pretty far towards the “musing” side relative to the general population, so I’d generally assumed that I do too much musing and not enough executing. “Head-in-the-clouds dreamer” and “impractical intellectual” and all that. (Introspection falls into this category too; thinking too much about your own psyche is “navel-gazing”.) But reflecting well seems to be incredibly high-reward relative to the time and effort spent, for compounding reasons. Strategizing so that you work on the right project, or putting attention into your mental health now so that you’re systematically more productive in the future, has a much bigger impact than just spending one more marginal hour on the daily slog. Reflecting and strategizing gave my friend Satvik much more success at work.
It’s always felt a little presumptuous to me — like “who am I to think about what I’m doing? I’m supposed to keep my head down, keep slogging, and not ask questions! Isn’t it terribly selfish to wonder what helps me do my best, rather than just doing my duty?” But that’s a set of norms that gets applied to children, soldiers, and laborers (and maybe it shouldn’t even then), not to people like me. My peers expect that a person who does “knowledge work” for a living and writes essays will, of course, reflect on what she’s doing.
So maybe I ought to be going back and reading what reflective people write, taking it seriously this time around. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What if you literally meant that? What if thinking about stuff was not a half-forbidden luxury but the most important thing about being human?