[extropy-chat] The Undying [Threads on this List]

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Sat Dec 2 18:29:36 UTC 2006

Lee Corbin wrote: 
> Jef writes
>> Rafal Smigrodzki wrote:
>>> There seem to be a few threads on the list that seemingly 
>>> cannot die. One of them involves pointless (IMO) struggles
>>> over the meaning of "rationality". This word has a
>>> reasonably clear definition provided on wikipedia,

By the way, Rafal sent a thoughtful reply to me offlist, by which I was
assured that Rafal does indeed have quite a clear and encompassing
understanding of these issues and some of the questions at the edges.
We differ, however, in regard to our willingness to engage in these
discussions on-list which tend to be more masochistic than productive.
I agree that they are largely unproductive (for those of us who have
been through them so many times) but my main motivation is the larger
issue of understanding how (or whether?) people can change their beliefs
through such low-bandwidth interaction. 

> Well, the wikipedia definition plainly tries to cover too 
> many bases for our purposes here. (I have no argument with it 
> for a Wikipedia description, but we require a narrower usage.)

Interesting.  I think that an obvious weakness of the Wikipedia article
is not that it lacks a sufficiently narrow usage, but that it lacks a
single elegant definition of the concept, broad in its applicability,
from which one can then proceed to describe the many narrow variations.

As an example we have Newton's laws of motion, elegantly stated and
broad in their applicability, from which we can discuss narrower cases
involving friction, turbulence, etc.

Such elegance is lacking in these fields, in my opinion, mainly because
we are still deeply entrenched in variations of Cartesian duality.  For
many of us, holding on as if survival depends on it.

> Moreover, I haven't seen a *problem* arising because we 
> didn't know what the term referred to; yes, we wonder about 
> what is the most useful scope of it we ought to employ, but 
> that's all, and doesn't IMO really cause confusion.

I would point out, again, that the context of rational decision-making,
including the scope of expected consequences (including interactees and
interactions over time), is what distinguishes "what works" from "what
is moral" and that this distinction is of vital importance to
implementing future systems of rational collaborative social
decision-making.  I think we can either implement these systems
intentionally, or they will emerge from the marketplace via selection of
what works--if we don't self-destruct before then.

Strict libertarians will say that a free market is the pure, correct and
complete solution to this problem, but they tend to see growth as
originating from within, rather than emerging from effective interaction
between self and the adjacent possible. Deeper thinkers see that
intentionally cultivating a cooperative environment is just as important
as exploiting that environment. Thus my poetical exhortation to come
down from the pristine peaks to the more fecund mountain valleys. 

>>> There is no need to invent a definition of this common 
>>> term, and if new but related referents need a name, it's
>>> better to come up with a new word.
> Quite right. But neologisms are almost always as futile as 
> "attempting to define all your terms and prove all your 
> propositions". [1]
>>> I know that since "rational" has strong positive emotional 
>>> and moral connotations (especially among us self-declared 
>>> rationalists), there is the temptation to redefine the term
>>> so as to be able to claim the moral high ground but it only
>>> sows confusion (irrationality, one might say) and makes for
>>> horribly boring threads.
> My general advice has been for one to avoid horribly boring 
> threads, (for what it's worth).
>> Rafal, I agree with you that it gets old rehashing what
>> we mean by rationality.  Same goes for personal identity,
>> free-will, morality and X*.
> I dispute that the problem is inability to reach and agree 
> upon common definition.  At least in most cases, even we on 
> the extropian list are far too intelligent to just debate 
> terminology;  in most these cases there is something real 
> that is bothering people.  (An interesting exception, 
> however, is "qualia".  People who believe in qualia just have 
> their epistemology so screwed up that they're usually beyond help.)
>> But it's interesting to me that this problem of 
>> understanding runs so deeply on a common thread 
>> tied to the meaning of self.
> I demur slightly; morality has never to me seemed to depend 
> on the meaning of self.

Then I have failed miserably over the last several years to communicate
this crucial point.  I don't know what else I could say, but I am
seriously considering moving toward writing persuasive fiction rather
than rational discourse.

>> And it's very interesting that we have yet to come to terms 
>> with this, or agree widely that it's a problem, even as we
>> claim to anticipate and embrace radical technological change
>> that clearly threatens to challenge our practical understanding
>> of these concepts.
> I feel that one of Jef's usual exhortations that morality is 
> about what works coming on.

That would be "what is seen to work over increasing scope (of
interactees and interactions over time)". The suggestion that morality
is simply what works is what leads to such strong resistance by people
thinking they're fighting against "might makes right" and certain
"rational, scientific" examples of eugenics and genocide.

Yes, I have certainly failed, not only to gain your agreement, but even
to gain your understanding of my argument.

>> There's a tendency for thinkers of above average intelligence
>> to discover and climb the mountain of libertarian philosophy 
>> nearly to its peak and stand there in awe of the elegance of
>> its structure and the sharpness of its fine point. But fewer
>> then move back down the slope--not all the way down to the
>> tepid waters of "ideal" democracy--but partway down to the fog
>> at the edge of chaos where Self meets the adjacent possible,
>> and novel structures branch anew.
> Oh, I was wrong.  Instead, we have material that could start 
> about four interesting threads.
>> Sorry to go all poetic on your shit, but there's a 
>> self-reinforcing sterility to certain forms of rational thought,
>> and it takes more than logic to break out of that kind of rut.
> Quite a number of us have been viewing rationality---or as I 
> like to call it---"hyperrationality" with deep suspicion for 
> a long time.
> If you've not read "The Robot's Rebellion", I cannot 
> recommend it highly enough.  It's not that I entirely 
> sympathize with the author ---he's a socialist, for one 
> thing, but he very clearly delineates what the problem is 
> here, and suggests language and provides information that 
> seem to me crucial for making progress.
>> *X in the sequence above stands for an as yet unimplemented form
>> of collaborative social decision making based on a rational 
>> understanding of the preceding items in the sequence.  
>> See the thread?
> You should make it clear that this is only a conjecture on 
> your part that such a form of collaborative social 
> decision-making exists or will exist. Yes, it's probably tied 
> up with identity, but I've taken a stand on what I mean by 
> identity, and so long as I'm Lee Corbin, that view, which 
> I've held since 1966, is not going to change. I'll turn into 
> someone else the day it does.
> Lee

Lee, I appreciate the frankness and clarity of this last paragraph in
which you have stated the main reason why such discussion tends not to

Self-preservation is the root of much unyielding belief.

- Jef

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