Contra Tyler, on “Is rationality a religion?”

Tyler Cowen called the rationality community a “religion” on Ezra Klein’s podcast the other day. Relevant excerpt, on Tyler’s blog:

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

My quick reaction:

Basically all humans are overconfident and have blind spots. And that includes self-described rationalists.

But I see rationalists actively trying to compensate for those biases at least sometimes, and I see people in general do so almost never. For example, it’s pretty common for rationalists to solicit criticism of their own ideas, or to acknowledge uncertainty in their claims.

Similarly, it’s weird for Tyler to accuse rationalists of assuming their ethos is correct. Everyone assumes their own ethos is correct! And I think rationalists are far more likely than most people to be transparent about the premises of their ethos, instead of just treating those premises as objectively true, as most people do.

For example, you could accuse rationalists of being overconfident that utilitarianism is the best moral system. Fine. But you think most people aren’t confident in their own moral views?

At least rationalists acknowledge that their moral judgments are dependent on certain premises, and that if someone doesn’t agree with those premises then it’s reasonable to reach different conclusions. There’s an ability to step outside of their own ethos and discuss its pros and cons relative to alternatives, rather than treating it as self-evidently true.

(It’s also common for rationalists to wrestle with flaws in their favorite normative systems, like utilitarianism, which I don’t see most people doing with their moral views.)

So: while I certainly agree rationalists have room for improvement, I think it’s unfair to accuse them of overconfidence, given that that’s a universal human bias and rationalists are putting in a rare amount of effort trying to compensate for it.