The twelve virtues of rationality

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I came across a great article by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky entitled Twelve Virtues of Rationality. Upon reading it I found that someone else wrote perfectly what I have found to be part of my own personal philosophy.

It describes twelve ideas that are critical for anyone to have a thoroughly rational mind. Things such as curiosity, argument and simplicity amongst others. While I had never read this article in the past, I find that the items chosen line up quite well with my own views. They are the things that both drive me and temper me. The ideas that help me find new lines of inquiry as well as weed out unnecessary concepts. And just like any set of views learned by someone over time, each new concept builds upon the previous just like new scientific ideas build upon old ones.

While I advise you to read the article in its entirety, I would also like to put forth my take. As I have come to similar conclusions on my own, it only makes sense to display my own views on them. Because we have taken different paths, yet reached the same conclusion, I believe it is a testament to how these concepts are intrinsic to the ‘spirit’ of rationality.

1. Curiosity.

I have always had a curious mind. Whenever I have come across something I have to understand it as well as how it integrates into what I already know. For many curiosity is, itself, a curiosity. Something that comes up now and then to be pondered over momentarily only to be put away again. But for me, and many others, it is a driving force. It is almost an insatiable need to know, to understand. If something that is unknown is uncovered, all the better as then one is able to indulge their curiosity further with a bit of speculation. This leads only to more questions with which one may pursue, creating an ever expanding playground with which to enjoy.

2. Relinquishment.

Whenever one commits themselves to a rational existence, there will come a time when previously believed or even cherished views will be contested or even destroyed. For many this is terrifying, leaving them with a sense of falling and nothing to grab a hold of. For me, it is exhilarating. To think, the world could be, no, will be, different than I had previously envisioned! This ties in with curiosity for often it is only an inquisitive mind that is willing to put long held views to the test.

3. Lightness.

As relinquishment requires us to let go of our tight grasp upon the old, lightness would have us embrace the new. Know that evidence will come about to upset old ideas and only through letting that evidence take us where it will can we ever hope to know the facts. The data might not always tell us what we want to hear, but as the adage goes “the universe doesn’t care what you believe”. It has been through such lightness that I have come to be able to call myself an atheist. Had I not embraced it, I would be stuck denying the evidence as so many still do.

4. Evenness.

With the previous three in mind, we must all be cautious about our demands. Far too often a person will only show these traits when questioning the ideas of others. Yet if we do not equally question our own and ourselves then we are bound to lose our intellectual honesty. If the ideas you hold are truly more accurate than those of whom you question, you have nothing to fear, for they shall be supported by the evidence. If they are not, then you have freed yourself from the shackles of inaccuracy that would otherwise weigh you down.

5. Argument.

While some claim that argument only causes dissension, I often find this is because they either fear for their long held beliefs or because they only know purely emotional arguments. If it is the former, then they must go back a few steps before continuing on. If the later, then it is because of lack of general rationality in our culture. Personally, I would prefer to label this one as ‘debate’, if only because it does not have the emotional connotations that argument has for far to many. But whatever you decide to call it, it is essential. Only through the tossing back and forth of ideas, through pointing out flaws and attempting to refine our own views can we hope to ever understand anything. Far to many shy away from this one when it is vitally important if we are ever to understand anything.

6. Empiricism.

Once one is willing to employ the previous five virtues, one can properly begin their search for understanding of the universe. While some may claim there are many ways to ‘know’, it is only through empirical evidence that we can hope to truly understand anything. If we do not use this technique, we will forever be lost within a maelstrom of conflicting views with no way of knowing which one actually reflects reality.

7. Simplicity.

A good hypothesis is one that describes the data in the shortest possible way. The more extraneous explanations that are added, the more likely it is that there is still yet more to uncover. This view has, unfortunately, been hijacked by some stating that the supernatural is the simplest view. That ‘god did it’ is a more elegant way of explaining the universe than what the evidence would lead us to believe. This ignores the fact that such an explanation ignores and/or dismisses the data. As such, it is not the simplest answer, but a false one. The simplest answer may appear complex, but this is only because no shorter answer would be able to describe the available data. As Einstein said “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This is the heart of Occam’s Razor.

8. Humility.

This can be described simply as ‘admit when you are wrong and then do something about it’. Just admitting your failure is not enough, for it does not change anything. Only after one changes their views to match the evidence may they call themselves humble. If you cannot do this, then you are only slightly better than those who actively lie for their position. You may not be forcefully spreading disinformation, but by not changing your own views, you are lending your support to them.

9. Perfectionism.

A perfectionist seeks out errors. They check and double check to weed out inconsistencies and contradictions. This must be done both inside and out. While we can never hope to eliminate them all, the more we try the better the verisimilitude we can construct. Both our theories and our minds are built upon a web of connections, each strand giving credence to all those it connects with. If one strand is misplaced, all those that connect with it will inherit this error and spread it on to all those they are connected with. Only be seeking out these misalignments can we hope to ever properly understand anything.

10. Precision.

While some may say this one is the same as perfectionism, it is again a case of one building off the previous. In perfectionism, one must search to better their data and themselves, where as precision is how one samples the data that must later be scrutinized. It also augments perfectionism in two ways. First, with greater precision, one will have less need of an all encompassing perfectionism. Second, it may be applied to perfectionism itself. With greater precision comes a higher degree of refinement and thus a more accurate understanding.

11. Scholarship.

While often seen as only formal education, scholarship is much more, it is a very mindset. It is curiosity refined through all the intermediate virtues. It is the raw thirst for data tempered by a proper understanding of how one should go about things to garner the best results. Scholarship should also not be limited. While it is impossible to learn everything about everything, the more one tries, the more one realizes the inter-connectivity of all things.

12. The Nameless Virtue.

This is the most esoteric of all the virtues and the most difficult to attain. It is the driving purpose and the understanding made one. It is the sense of unity with that which has been revealed. It is the awe and wonder at the functioning of the universe while attempting to make that information your own. It is about being able to no longer differentiate the data from yourself while distancing enough so as not to become attached should it ever be overturned. It is the ability to see the whole as well as the uniquely functioning parts at the same moment. It is a state of ever changing zen. It is a scientific nirvana.

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About Post Author

Carol Bell

Carol is a graduate of the University of Alabama. Her passion is journalism and it shows. Carol is our unpaid, but very efficient, administrative secretary.
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13 years ago

Amen, Chris. Food for thought.

13 years ago

It is good to know that some have found my inane ramblings to be of some interest.

Reply to  Chris Buescher
13 years ago

mmm..the fact that it’s me that has found this post interesting may be a worry to some….

I’m not what I seem to be but I am what I seem to some…

Life’s a bitch and then you die eh?

…or alternatively…MY mantra…’You live you die, the bit in between is called life…ENJOY!’

Reply to  Four Dinners
13 years ago

I can certainly get behind that mantra.

13 years ago

I’m clearly running on empty when it comes to any of these!

Very interesting old bean. I don’t claim to have entirely understood everything but that was excellent!

13 years ago

This badger is a damn Saint…

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