Rationality Is Not A Martial Art

From the beginning, Yudkowsky’s sequences follow a running metaphor of rationality as martial art. This implies a bunch of shitty stuff. I’m going to describe why it’s shitty, and then propose an alternative metaphor that I think is somewhat less shitty.

  • Martial arts are individual pursuits. They are typically practiced in a social context, yes, students practicing together, masters passing their wisdom on to students. But they’re mostly not about fighting together, just training. Rationalists, like other humans, need to work together to complete large projects.
  • Martial arts are personal. They are specifically about what a human mind can do with a human body. Rationalists are encouraged to make and use tools.
  • Martial arts are only good for one thing: physical conflict with other humans. Rationality is broadly applicable, in almost any context or for any purpose.
  • It’s straightforward to identify skilled martial artists by holding fighting tournaments. What sort of tournament do you hold to test rationalists? Assessing rationality in humans is Hard.
  • Martial arts are competitive. They are about becoming the best fighter (comparative) and not about becoming the true fighter (absolute), whatever that would even mean.
  • In martial arts, your opponents are always human.

Instead I propose a metaphor of rationality as the mental toolkit you use to understand the world, plan, and make decisions.  Now, a toolkit is not the single perfect true metaphor for this purpose, but it does have one very nice property that the martial arts metaphor does not: other metaphors for rationality are themselves part of the toolkit.

Mental tools (or mental technologies) like Bayes’ Theorem or Postmodernism can be invented. They can be passed from person to person, but they’re no good unless you know how to use them. They can be designed for many purposes or for very specific purposes. Your capabilities expand as you acquire a broader range of tools, and you can produce finer work with more specialized tools.

You can use tools to build better tools.

You can use tools to build.

One other nice property of the toolkit metaphor is that metaphor is itself a part of the toolkit of rationality, as is self-reference.

7 thoughts on “Rationality Is Not A Martial Art”

  1. The serious version, forgetting the sick burn on rationalists, is that it consists of a lot of tools for protecting yourself from your own cleverness, and they can work decently for that: suspect yourself of motivated thinking, take the outside view, etc. But there’s always a temptation to instead use them to weaponize your cleverness. Dismiss others for being biased, selectively screen off evidence with rigged outside views… If there’s an analogy here, it’s to self-defense. But as I’ve elsewhere argued, rationality training should be analogized to therapy, if anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rationality IS like a martial art to the extent that they’re both about economy of movement and repetition to the point of automaticity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the metaphor was more about making rationality glamorous and to spur your ambition, to make your aspire to be a rationalist.
    We’ve absorbed a lot of tropes about martial arts through our culture, be it Hollywood or manga. People train continuously and then finally manage to overcome problems that seemed insurmountable before. The wise old master gives you some advice and you suddenly gain a new perspective and become much better.
    The metaphor was trying to tap into that inspiring image.


  4. I think you don’t understand martial arts very well. The only point on your list that I wouldn’t dispute is the one about identifying skill.


      1. Some of the most formidable opponents in martial arts are your own arrogance, laziness, and so forth – the things that prevent you from perfecting the art. We could quibble about whether or not those qualify as human opponents, but dealing with them is certainly different than sparring in a competition.

        This is an example of what I think the original post misses about martial arts. Philosophy is a major part of what martial arts teaches: self-discipline, self-improvement, learning from others and from criticism. Hence the relationship of the phrase “tsuyoku naritai” (I want to become stronger) to the conception of rationality as a martial art.


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