Monday, January 18, 2016

Against Applied Rationality, Or, Please Respect The Elephant

Pietro Longhi, 1701-1785, The Elephant, via Wikimedia Commons

I spend a lot of time in a somewhat eye-roll-y state of mind, and sometimes I wonder: are the things and people of this world really as stupid and annoying as I tend to think they are? Then I come across things like the Applied Rationality Seminar and I know I can rest assured: no, I've pretty much got it.

This essay in yesterday's New York Times has all the details. You spend four days and nights "on site," in overcrowded dormlike conditions, mostly with other highly motivated Bay Area 20-somethings, doing exercises designed to free you from your irrationality. Only $3,900 per person.

Obviously, I'm not so churlish as to deny someone a leg up with dealing with procrastination or obsessive Facebook checking or whatever. Knock yourselves out. But as so often with these kinds of things, it's never about small improvements in your existing life. It's always some kind of messianic and all encompassing drive -- like it's the boot camp for The Singularity or something.

I can never quite get what these programs are getting at, because I can never grasp what end point the people are aiming toward. I mean, if rationality is just taking appropriate steps to satisfy your preferences, then who's to say "checking Facebook" or "sitting on the sofa" isn't your true preference rather than "work" or "going to the gym"?

They give the example of someone who wants a PhD but doesn't want to "work on it." Well -- if you don't want to work on it, wouldn't it be just as rational to, um, not work on it? To form some other goal instead?

The people who run the workshops take pains to show that they're not anti-emotion, talking about the idea of two systems that can sometimes run in tandem and sometimes run in different directions. It's "like a monkey riding an elephant." The monkey is the "intellectual, goal-setting" part, and the elephant is the "emotional, instinctive" part. When they're not in harmony, trouble ensues.

Sure, I get that. And yes, when there's disharmony between the monkey and the elephant, there's no question there's going to be trouble. But they talk about it like the elephant is some kind of idiot -- at best giving you a bit of intuitive edge to see things you might have missed otherwise, but otherwise there to be nudged and guided in the appropriate way.

So what I don't get is: Who died and made the monkey headmaster?

When people talk about "who they are," they often come up with things like "loving parent," "caring spouse," "Chicago Bulls fan," or "Star Wars obsessive." These things are all about caring and liking. Aren't they all from the elephant? So why when we're getting down to it do we suddenly act like "Oh, monkey needs help! He can't steer the elephant! Monkey needs a workshop on elephant management. Only $3900 per person.

While it is true that some of the exercises are about getting clearer on what your goals are, all the techniques mentioned seem to involve introspection and thought experiments -- basically more thinking about what you are thinking. All these years of people shouting that Descartes was wrong because the self isn't identical to the thinking self -- and where have they gotten us?

One reason I think people side with the monkey is that in the background, there are lurking ideas about "productivity" and "getting things done." And especially in this group, the idea seems to be that when you get unstuck, you'll be able to harness the power of your emotional self for doing "important things." One guy, when confronted with the possibility that there are other things beyond productivity -- like happiness, and other people -- is dismissive:

"I want to augment the race," he says. "I want humanity to achieve great things. I want us to conquer death."

Oh brother. Much as I'd love to be immortal, it's hard for me to count not-living-forever among the pressing problems of the human race. Plus, is this really intended to convey that ordinary people like this guy should stop wasting a few minutes here or there online and make sure to get to work so they can ... do what exactly? Make an app? Move some money around?

Maybe there are people whose activities are important enough to be maximized. Maybe people inventing solutions to the climate crisis. Or trying to stop wars. Maybe health researchers? Actually I think those people are already really productive, and according to articles like this, the way to improve things like health care is to stop pushing productivity and start to care about love.

Look, maybe you do need to change your life. If you're constantly undermining yourself, if you're a diabetic and you can't eat right and take your meds, if you're drinking yourself to death and you can't stop, if you keep lashing out in anger at the people you love -- yes, your elephant is in trouble, and you might want to change, and you might need help doing so.

But as we all know from living on Earth among humans (and as Atul Gawande has been reminding us lately), mostly people change because of other people -- other people taking an interest, talking to us over and over, nagging occasionally, and caring what happens.

It's basically the polar opposite of a highly individualized workshop teaching you to look inside yourself for the powerful answers within. 

No comments: