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Unhinged - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Unhinged [Jun. 9th, 2011|06:45 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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Scott Aaronson once described Less Wrong-style rationalists in typically Aaronsonesque manner, withering but funny enough that it's impossible to be offended. He called us "bullet swallowers," alleging that when faced with a situation where reasonable assumptions lead to conclusions that society considers absurd, a bullet swallower would say:
The entire world should follow the line of reasoning to precisely this extreme, and this is the conclusion, and if a ‘consensus of educated opinion’ finds it disagreeable or absurd, then so much the worse for educated opinion! Those who accept this are intellectual heroes; those who don’t are cowards.
I will happily accept that as a description of how I typically think, although I don't try to impose my views on other people. My own behavior, on the other hand, to the extent that it doesn't impact others, is guided by first-principles logic with total and cultivated disregard for "accepted wisdom." It's easy to fall subconsciously into the "because you're supposed to" trap, and it takes effort to cut that type of reasoning out of your habitual thought process.

The opposite, mainstream behavior—"bullet dodging," in Aaronson's terminology—has never really been an option for me. I was raised by religious fundamentalists, and I shudder to think what my life would have been if I hadn't rejected the culture and belief system that I was raised under once I was old enough to think for myself. (And if you doubt that the act of questioning my received beliefs was extreme and borderline unthinkable, I have news for you.)
Bullet dodging is relatively safe—you're unlikely to seriously harm yourself physically, mentally or financially. But if you're going to be a bullet swallower and make it work, you have to (1) keep it to yourself, unless you're OK with being an asshole, and (2) constantly question your axioms, your reasoning and your evidence, and be willing to do an about-face at a moment's notice. This requires, among other things, keeping your identity small.
For many years I insisted that I had no need for a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle and that synchronizing my schedule to the Sun was antiquated and inefficient given the existence of lightbulbs, the Internet and 24-hour stores. But defeating my circadian rhythm and external cues was way harder than I'd anticipated, so I had to give up. In fact I now have several hacks to keep my cycle in sync.
That said, the potential rewards of bullet swallowing are huge. My questioning the conventional wisdom on caffeine has led to gigantic productivity gains in the last few years. There are many other personal behaviors that I've put into practice with even more of a reward potential, but I won't go into them here.

Back to the inimitable Aaronson: in another post he describes us as people who 

follow their chains of logic straight past the acceptably-quirky into the “childish,” “weird,” and “naïve” without even noticing the “WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK?” danger-signs
That's a great way of putting it. "Not noticing the what-will-people-think danger signs" is a trait with much explanatory power: it is correlated with poor social skills, for example. My strategy has been to learn to let logic roam unchecked inside my own head, while filtering what comes out of my mouth. I believe I've improved my abilities on both these fronts, although there is certainly much more room for improvement on the latter! This online journal is a happy middle-ground: I find that I have a lot more freedom since I don't have to fear instant social alienation, but I do practice a significant degree of self-censorship.
There's a word I really like that describes the combination of bullet swallowing and ignoring what other people might think: "unhinged." The "hinges" in question are mental barriers that anchor us to the bounds of social norms. Hinges can be powerful—they help us play it safe, as I mentioned earlier, and keep us from running away with flawed logic that might lead to catastrophic mistakes. I see an analogy to the freeze reflex that evolved as a way to let our emotions take over from logic in dangerous situations. 
But hinges can be harmful in the modern world. We are well-adapted to function in the Savannah that we evolved in; our brains are pathetically underprepared for the challenges of technological civilization. Just as the freeze reflex often achieves the opposite of what it's supposed to—such as by preventing us from stepping away from an oncoming car—so do hinges. Cultural norms are smarter than evolution, but only slightly so.
I learnt to unhinge myself better, at least inside my own head, a few years ago. It was a beautiful experience. Following the trail of cold logic on a wide range of moral issues—pain, punishment and retributive justice, just to name a small sample—and deriving an internally consistent ethical worldview was quite rewarding as a thought experiment, although practically useless. But the insights that led to improving my personal productivity and what I think is a much-improved ability to predict the path of technological and societal change, and prepare accordingly, have been priceless.

[User Picture]From: smriti
2011-06-11 04:48 am (UTC)
Well put. That is indeed an interesting journey.

The links made for interesting reading, so wanted to stop by and say "thanks for sharing". For instance, I hadn't seen the Paul Graham article on keeping identity small: that turned out to be one of those "obvious in retrospect" theories that are a pleasure to come across, because its something you've always "known" but never consciously vocalized. If that makes sense.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-11 07:05 am (UTC)
Yay! Glad it was useful.

Paul Graham is indeed one of those thinker-writers who has a knack for verbalizing things you kinda knew but you didn't know you knew. His strength is in taking simple ideas and making them blindingly obvious and inescapable. He does employ some rhetorical devices that make this effect seem rather more complete than it actually is.

Eliezer Yudkowsky (example) and Venkatesh Rao (example), on the other hand, two other Internet thinker-writers whom I consider extraordinarily brilliant, are at the other extreme—they specialize in taking ideas that are too complex for most ordinary mortals and bringing them into the realm of the barely comprehensible.
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[User Picture]From: Lakshmi Krishnaswamy
2011-07-19 10:58 pm (UTC)
Smriti has echoed my sentiments on this post,Paul Graham,and such. The part about religious fundamentalism was explicated with such brevity that I have been cracking up on it ever since!Such a deja vu...


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