Rationality techniques as patterns

[epistemic status: optimistic vision that currently seems highly useful]

In Christopher Alexander’s work, a pattern consists of:

  1. A way of perceiving an existing tension in a living system.
  2. A model for why the tension exists.
  3. A way of adapting the system in a way that resolves the tension.

Christopher Alexander describes hundreds of patterns for towns and buildings in A Pattern Language.  Consider pattern #126, SOMETHING ROUGHLY IN THE MIDDLE:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty.

if there is a reasonable area in the middle, intended for public use, it will be wasted unless there are trees, monuments, seats, fountains—a place where people can protect their backs, as easily as they can around the edge.


Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock-tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand.  Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in twoards the center.  Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

This pattern points out a tension: a public space without a middle will feel weird and people will avoid it.  Next, it gives a model for the tension: it’s because people want their back to be against something.  Finally, it gives a way to resolve this tension: put something roughly in the middle.

Patterns that work well with each other form a pattern language.  SOMETHING ROUGHLY IN THE MIDDLE works with SMALL PUBLIC SQUARES; along with the other patterns, they form a pattern language.

The initial tension will sometimes be diffuse and hard to pin down.  People might feel “off” when they’re in a large empty space but not have the words to say why.  They might not even consciously realize there is a problem and instead just have slightly elevated stress levels.  The tension becomes more pointed if it is explicitly pointed out and especially if there is a model for it.

Many of the rationality techniques discussed in the LessWrong-descended rationality community are patterns in this sense.  The technique of leaving a line of retreat is about noticing a tension (some possibility X seems hard to seriously consider) and resolving it by imagining a world in which X is true in detail (in order to allow yourself to compare the world where X is true and the world where X is false even-handedly).  The technique of finding a true rejection is about noticing a tension (people have arguments where they give false reasons for their beliefs and don’t actually change their minds when these reasons are refuted) and resolving it by urging people to find the actual historical reasons for their beliefs.  CFAR‘s debugging techniques are also usually patterns of this form (they resolve some sort of tension within a person or between a person and their environment, usually reducing stress levels).

Resolving tensions fully brings to mind the image of a placid lake.  But resolving tensions doesn’t necessarily lead to placidity, because systems involving humans are alive.  Solving all of someone’s immediate problems might make them bored, and might make them want to help others.

Christopher Alexander praises the way that well-built towns and buildings bring out life in The Timeless Way of Building (I highly recommend reading the first 2 chapters):

There is one timeless way of building.

It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been.

The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way.  It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way.  And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

It is a process through which the order of a building or a town grows out directly from the inner nature of the people, and the animals, and plants, and matter which are in it.

It is a process which allows the life inside a person, or a family, or a town, to flourish, openly, in freedom, so vividly that it gives birth, of its own accord, to the natural order which is needed to sustain this life.

But as things are, we have so far beset ourselves with rules, and concepts, and ideas of what must be done to make a building or a town alive, that we have become afraid of what will happen naturally, and convinced that we must work within a “system” and with “methods” since without them our surroundings will come tumbling down in chaos.

The thoughts and fears which feed these methods are illusions.

I find Christopher Alexander’s vision highly appealing.  Something happened in Western architecture that interfered with the timeless way of building; this probably had to do with the increase in degrees of freedom in the transition from pre-modern to modern societies.  Similar phenomena have happened in other domains.  Luckily, the way can be regained through the discipline of pattern languages, and eventually through dissolving disciplines and doing what is natural.  There are obvious parallels with Taoism.

I want pattern languages for improving people’s psychological functioning, for improving groups’ ability to work together, for improving models of the world, for making good institutions, for all sorts of things.  Groups of people are developing pattern languages in many different places, mostly without explicitly knowing what they are doing.  I think a more explicit understanding of pattern languages and knowledge of how past pattern languages were created will help to design better ones in the future.  Maybe with the right pattern languages (and with the right going-beyond-them), we can become much more alive, as individuals and as groups, and much more able to coordinate to accomplish very hard things.

One thought on “Rationality techniques as patterns

  1. I think techniques are the equivalent of nice paintings and that a pattern language of rationality is closer in abstraction level to paint choice, brush choice, and individual brush strokes.


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