Becoming a more rational thinker

I read a lot of books in 2016. Not as many as I would’ve liked to, but still plenty enough. Two of the most influential books I read this year are Harry Potter and the Methods and Rationality and From AI to Zombies, both written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

To me the books represented a kind of wake up call. I had *no* idea how many things I have always taken for granted and/or never questioned myself about.

For eg: Why is the ratio of males-to-females in any particular population approximately 1:1? Why did I never question the impact an existence of magical Britain would have on the rest of the world (perfectly hidden in plain sight, just doesn’t seem possible when you think about it).

It’s hard to write down the kind of questions reading these books raised in my head. I haven’t achieved nirvana. I don’t have the faintest idea about how to train my brain to see such flaws and question accepted beliefs. But I do realize that a seed has been planted inside my brain.

There are various ideas, big and small, that I picked up from reading those books. The art of rationality can’t be learned in a day (at least by me) but this list below represents some resolutions that I’ve taken to improve myself and walk further down the path of rationality.

  • Question everything – Remember the 5 Whys and 1 H (Who, what, where, why, when and how). Question every belief and assumption you’ve ever made and be impartial when holding them accountable.
  • The strength a mental model/belief is in the things that it can’t predict – The more things you’re beliefs and ideas can predict, the more useless they really are. For eg: If you  believe brown people are all criminals, then the existence of even 1 non-criminal brown person should make you question your belief. Similarly, if you believe god exists and you believe god punishes all bad people, seeing an unpunished bad person should weaken your belief.
  • Don’t be satisfied with mysterious answers
    • How does the electric bulb work => Electricity.
    • How does electricity make it work => No idea
    • Hence proved, How does the electic bulb work => No idea
  • Think out of the box – For any given situation, given finite time, our brain can only come up with a limited number of possibilities. These are the possibilities that our brain considers plausible/acceptable. However, in reality, there are a lot more possible solutions than the one’s we come up with.
  • Be careful about the limitations of your mental circuitry – It was mentioned in the book, that we have a tendency to accept a piece of knowledge when we hear it, and then analyze it for possible flaws. Which, essentially, means that any belief you don’t actively analyze and reject, is already in someways a part of your value system. Scary isn’t it?
  • Confusion exists in the map, not the territory – World around is not discrete. Things such as people, chairs, clothes, animals etc don’t exist. There are mere shortcuts created by our brains to better understand a vast and incredibly complex world. Anything you don’t understand or can’t comprehend about the world, reflects your own shortcomings, not an anomaly in the universal laws (whatever they might be).
  • That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be : (Quoting eliezer) When something good happens, I am happy, and there is no confusion in my mind about whether it is rational for me to be happy. When something terrible happens, I do not flee my sadness by searching for fake consolations and false silver linings.

I will keep adding more points as and when I remember them.

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