Specific Criticism: Positive Vs. Optimal

My response to Patri Friedman in this thread:

What I mean by “the most useful thing” is, by definition, the most productive – that which will advance your goals the most for the least effort. Sure, costs in determining that matter. But it’s almost tautological that that’s what is best to work on.

But it’s not generally possible to determine what will actually advance your goals.

Imagine for a moment Queen Victoria had established an overarching goal, “produce a means of communication that will permit Us to send Our Voice to all corners of the empire”, and given it to her scientists and engineers.

How much progress would they have made?

Now, consider the equations produced by J.C. Maxwell. There were no indications ahead of time that his interest in electromagneticism would produce such a powerful result – a result that was instrumental in the eventual production of the radio, a device which fits Victoria’s requirements to the tee.

You can’t determine what the benefits of funding basic research will be. Yet doing so was the best way to reach the hypothetical goal, not funding research into the goal directly, which almost certainly would have produced a greatly inferior method within the bounds of then-known principles.

Aiming at the target is often the worst way to hit it.

I’m surprised the claim needs defending.

You’re not much of a rationalist, then. All claims need defending. Some can be defended with trivial effort, some require a great deal more – but ALL require it.

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2 Responses to “Specific Criticism: Positive Vs. Optimal”

  1. Mick Turner Says:

    I find rationalism a truly fascinating game. A culture decides the rules of logic and then everything that one might put forth or speculate must be defended or justified according to the pre-set parameters of the game. The big problem with rationalism is that it discourages thinking out of the box. Rationalists say that its ok to think out of the box, as long as it can be defended by the rules of the box. A riddle inside a conundrum for sure. The other problem is that maybe 20 percent of reality as we experience it can be explained by the rules of the box. Again, it is in essence a game whereby a culture agrees to have only limited sight.

    Carlos Castenada, in his experiences with Don Juan, talked about two aspects of reality. The “Tonal” and the “Nagual.” The Tonal was basically everything that could be explained and defended. The Nagual was the vast sea that surrounded the island of the Tonal. Cultures, by their very natures, avoid the Nagual. It might shatter their precious paradigms, such as rationalism. Hell, it might even cause them to grow.

  2. Rationalism has its shortcomings, but none of them can be fixed with irrationalism.

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