If You Want to Know How Things Are in Reality

Kaj Sotala, a self-described pursuer of truth, a few years ago offered some tips for those who want to "know how things are in reality." Excerpts below with my bolded highlights:

* Study things from as many points of view as possible, and try to understand as many models of thought as you can. This way, you can better understand the behavior of other people, and how people can think in ways that seem incomprehensible to you. If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way….

* Recognize your fallibility. Realize that in a quest for the truth, your own biases become your worst enemy. To defeat your enemy you must understand it, so set forth on studying it….Find the time to peruse articles like Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases and Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. In your interdisciplinary studies, especially emphasize the sciences that help you in understanding and combating your bias, and the ones that allow you to think clearly – in his Twelve Virtues of Rationality (which is required reading for you), Eliezer Yudkowsky recommends evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory and decision theory….

* Discuss the same subjects repeatedly, even with the same people. If you are losing a debate but still cannot admit you're wrong, ask for time to ponder upon it. Decide if your hesitation was you being too caught up in the defense of a topic, in which case you only need time to get over it and accept your opponent's arguments, or because there was more relevant information in your mind that you couldn't recall at the moment, in which case you need time for your subconsciousness to bring them to your mind….

* Avoid certainty, and of all people, be the harshest on yourself. 80% of drivers thinks they belong in the top 30% of all drivers, and even people aware of cognitive biases often seem to think those biases don't apply to them. People tend to find in ambiguous texts the points that support their opinions, while discounting the ones that disagree with them. Question yourself, and recognize that if you want your theories to find the truth, you can never be the only one to evaluate them….Meditate on the mantra of "nothing is impossible, only extremely unlikely". Think of the world in terms of probabilities, not certainties.

Here is Kaj's post on his personal values. Here is his "About Me" page on his personal web site where, in addition to basic factual information, he lists his one-paragraph stance on free will, ethics, rationality, love, religion, copyright, distribution of wealth, and medical regulation.

He is 24 years-old. For gender he writes: To paraphrase rm: "If there are men and women, then I'm a man. If there are men, women and transsexuals, then I'm a man. If there are men, women, transsexuals and something else, then I am something else."

12 Responses to If You Want to Know How Things Are in Reality

  1. Alex says:

    This post should be a must-read for everybody… especially politicians! Thanks Ben, keep up the good work.

  2. Science is the only path to truth.

  3. You’ve cited these points, but offered no opinion on them – to what extent do you think one should seek truth? A rationalist would say that you should always seek to see things exactly as they are, however it’s practical for an entrepreneur (and in general when trying to accomplish something) to fall on the optimistic side of the spectrum. How do you balance what s right versus what’s practical?

    I find myself linking to and citing Eliezer’s Twelve Virtues over and over again and I’m a big fan of LessWrong and Overcoming Bias. I’ve written a few posts about the subjects discussed in Kaj’s post – here’s one about the dilemma that I presented above:
    http://www.brettbolkowy.com/2010/01/unwarranted-consistency.html

  4. Oops, this is the one that’s related: http://www.brettbolkowy.com/2009/12/whats-right-vs-whats-practical.html

    Sorry about that – the other one is relevant to this post though.

  5. James A says:

    Excellent. Charlie Munger’s speech, “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement” is another classic in this vein. http://is.gd/cX2Xe

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Realism and optimism…a tricky balance indeed! I'm not sure there are any
    rules for it….

  7. Right. At a certain point in time in a certain situation they are mutually exclusive – so one might balance practicing realism in things that are abstract, eg: evaluating a policy, but optimism in things that are more concrete, eg: starting a company. In reality it’s much less cut-and-dry and these situations and mindsets bleed in to each other. I at least feel that overall this juxtaposition is very hard to maintain and that you tend to practice and take stock in one or the other significantly more.

    Overall, do you find yourself valuing one more than the other, and which one? Or do you see it as purely situational?

    In your experience, has one – on average- served you better?

  8. DaveJ says:

    Have to make a point on the “driver self-evaluation” comment. I don’t think this is an example of the Lake Wobegon effect. I think it’s a result of two different standards by which people evaluate drivers. Passive/defensive drivers consider that a better way of driving, while assertive drivers think the opposite. If we assume that drivers split half and half, putting yourself in the top 30% means you’re putting yourself below-average among your own category.

  9. Bryan says:

    I Love your snippets from Kaj Sotala and agree whole heartily but I find the following quite strange..

    I quote from your original source, Kaj Sotala “If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way….

    But what if someone came up to me and said the following..

    There is an old man in the sky who you cannot see but he can see and hear and know everything you do. This old man created everything for us and had a nice place for us if we are good. He also had a nasty place if we disobeyed his rules, which included not to covet thy neighbor’s male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass.

    This invisible man then sent one of his relatives who was born without a father and despite no scientific evidence turned H2O into wine, walked on water and then finally was killed but didn’t really die….

    Would any sane person (open to reason and evidence) ever understand a religious person well enough not to consider them silly;

    Ummm I doubt this but in keeping with your blog I will reserve judgment and ask for time to ponder on this… :)

    However a good article to read and some good points…

    Thanks Ben

  10. kevin says:

    A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.[1] To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet weaker proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

    See: Above.

  11. Supra Shoes says:

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