Welcome to The Nonlinear Library, where we use Text-to-Speech software to convert the best writing from the Rationalist and EA communities into audio. This is: A Pattern Language For Rationality, published by Vaniver on July 5, 2022 on LessWrong.
There's a lens to looking at the rationality project that I've been finding enlivening recently, and I think it's reached the point where more eyes and hands might be useful, while not being anywhere near complete yet. First, some background.
Christopher Alexander was a designer and architect; his thinking, and focus on patterns in particular, were influential in programming; wikis were first invented to facilitate the collaborative creation and modification of 'patterns' in the style he described. He wrote lots of books, but I'll focus on this trio:
The Timeless Way of Building (about the ‘quality without a name’, and good vs. bad buildings)
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (about the 'patterns' they’ve identified for physical buildings and towns)
The Oregon Experiment (about the University of Oregon, and how it could replace a ‘master plan’ with principles)
The three books, while each on a different subject or layer of 'design', all work together and depend on each other. The first identifies the target, why it would even be good to pursue, and how you know whether or not you've found it. The second is a detailed description of the patterns they've found useful in approaching the target. The third is what it looks like to organize systems to deliberately and durably organize themselves according to this design.
Just like this approach was profitably translated to programming (and other areas of design), I think it's worth looking at the 'rationality' project as a way to design decisions, habits, and thinking, and attempting to deliberately incorporate Alexander's approach and strategy. This post is an attempt to get started in each of the three directions, rather than fully lay them out; depending on how things go, I might turn this post into a sequence / flesh out individual sections.
The Timeless Way of Living
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
[Consider also 'thinking', 'deciding', 'doing', and 'being' in place of 'living', for both this section and the next.]
Alexander talks about the “Quality Without A Name”, so-called because no existing English word was a good fit, altho he could point towards it pretty effectively in a few pages; you should read the start of The Timeless Way of Building (Amazon, pdf) to get his sense of it. I think “equilibrium” comes somewhat close–a design has the Quality Without A Name if all of the forces present, both internal and external, are balanced. This isn’t the true name because many equilibria we see don’t have the Quality Without A Name, because for them only some of the forces are active in determining the level. A house might be at ‘equilibrium’ according to the windows and the thermostat, but not according to the human inside who’s not happy with the situation and wants to do something about it.
When talking about buildings, he talks about whether they're 'alive' or 'dead'. His overall sense is that many design features are 'obvious' or 'natural'; while there might be lots of detail to the model of how to make things that are alive, most of the ability to detect whether or not a building is alive or dead is already 'baked in' to being a human.
I think it's relatively easy to point to good buildings and bad buildings, and somewhat harder to point to good lives and bad lives, mostly because we can walk around the inside of building made by others but not their minds. Nevertheless, it seems possible to collect pictures of what it is that makes life worth living, what properties good decisions have, what virtues we might like to embody. This is, historically, a place I think the rationality project has done pretty well.
You may try to name the highest princip...