On the limits of rationality.

I always feel weird identifying myself as a rationalist. On one side, this is because there’s a sizable and often fractious community who people tend to think of when they think of rationalists, and I’m not really sure how close I am to the mean member there. On the other hand…how can you not be a rationalist? To be a rationalist is to give preference to reason above all else, and reason is “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” according to the all-knowing Google. It is our ability to reason that has driven us from endurance-hunting plains apes to masters of this world and explorers of others. Reason works.

But being the best epistemology does not mean that it has all the answers. Take one of the big problems that the rationalist community has been wrestling with; what should you do when the reasonable thing to do is to become unreasonable?

From an old story-essay on the topic here:

Two cars race toward each other on an empty freeway; the first to swerve is the chicken. How should you play if you want to preserve both your status and your life? The answer is clear: in full view of your opponent, rip out your car’s steering wheel, blindfold yourself, down a bottle of Jack Daniels, scream. If you can persuade your opponent that you’re incapable of making the decision to swerve, then he has to swerve. In other words: the stupider, more ignorant, more irrational you can prove you are, the better the chance you have of winning.

This is entirely correct. The rational way to win a game of chicken is to convince your opponent that you are belligerent, aggressive, and have no care for your life, and given that people are clever and have memories, the best way to do this is to actually be belligerent, aggressive, and have no care for your life.

Rationality tells you this. (It also says to go back and check your work, run tests, and so forth, and this is a crucial step in any rational conclusion, and the fact that I’m about to say “…but let’s skip this for now.” should send mental klaxons a-ringing, but let’s skip this for now.) What rationality does not tell you is “Wait, why am I playing this game again? What are my real goals here?”

And what are they, really? How much do you really value status? Does that answer shift based on who’s giving you status? People, secure within a subculture that they trust to value and support them, feel free to accept the opprobrium of outgroup members as a badge of honor. Why not do this when you are a subculture of one? Are there really no cultures that you could not set yourself against wholly, and be proud to be the lone outsider against?

Rationality can tell you how to achieve the goals you set for yourself. But it can’t tell you what to value. And it can’t tell you when you’re assuming that something you’re striving for is actually something that you really want.

So, what’s the answer to the chicken problem? You swerve. You accept defeat, submit to the macho-er guy who didn’t swerve, and praise him for his courage and machismo. You stop playing chicken, because he’s himself your superior, and you acknowledge this fact whenever anyone asks. You support the idea that the values of that guy are great and grand, and lead to positive social outcomes. You hold him up as an example to young up-and-coming people. You push the group so that the belligerent, aggressive, and careless folk are playing chicken against each other. And when the guy who beat you goes up against someone as belligerent, aggressive, and careless as himself, he dies. This is when you start talking up how noble and true and brave he and his co-gamer were, and use the fact that they were willing to die for honor and glory and bravery to shame anyone else who plays and swerves.

And so the group will eventually end. Because the thing about choosing to blind yourself to let yourself win a fight against someone more rational than you is that you’ll eventually fight someone as irrational as you’ve made yourself. And even if you never do, you’re still living in a world where effects follow causes, and the inevitable effect of promoting machismo, courage, and honor over reason and self-preservation is that people either die en masse, or leave the group.

And really, that last should be your first option when dealing with people playing chicken. Get out of that group if you can, and only attempt to steer the group into a self-devouring reaction of social proof if you want to show off your rational cojones.


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