Learning to underthink a plate of beans.
July 24, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality A short story by M.I.T. faculty member Scott Aaronson about a woman whose rationality got in the way of her happiness.

A type-0 thinker is concerned directly with the truth about the world. A type-1 thinker is concerned with the truth about which beliefs are most advantageous to hold, since knowing the truth isn't always to your advantage. A type-2 thinker is concerned with the truth about which beliefs about the truth about which beliefs are most advantageous to hold are most advantageous to hold. Etc.
posted by Obscure Reference (89 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This reminds me in a very creepy way of the deliriously self-important and purple prose habitually churned out by a friend of mine. But better, somehow.
posted by silby at 9:35 AM on July 24, 2010

I'm not trying to thread-shit, but if I didn't like the first three paragraphs (and was in fact repulsed by the writing) then does it get better? Should I power through?
posted by codacorolla at 9:44 AM on July 24, 2010

Is it just me or is the front page really depressing today?

Don't worry, be happy!
posted by Marla Singer at 9:46 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

She seems to be trying awfully hard to seem so smart. Sort of the way those kids in high school would try to seem so punk rock. Her personality seems less a byproduct of hyper-rationality and more a conscious style choice.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not trying to thread-shit, but if I didn't like the first three paragraphs (and was in fact repulsed by the writing) then does it get better? Should I power through?

That's like asking "If I don't like chase scenes and explosions, should I see Inception?" Depends how much you disliked it. He's not on the English faculty.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:50 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

What a load of smug, mawkish garbage. A man writing as an attractive woman describing herself isn't at all creepy either.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:52 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spoiler Alert! It probably would have gone a smidge better if he hadn't beaten me over the head with the Flowers for Algernon comparison.
posted by redsparkler at 9:58 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Its about an overthinker who becomes an underthinker. No wonder this story is getting a rough ride here.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:00 AM on July 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh ffs you guys.

Clearly Aaronson isn't Proust, but the idea behind this piece isn't trivial, especially in the context of a professorship at MIT. He's giving his students a primer on the God Debate and encouraging them to develop a heuristic that allows them to negotiate effectively between a fully engaged critical intellect and a satisfying and focused emotional life. A little charity on the part of his readers will bring into focus the philosophical tension he's struggling with here. There isn't a cookie-cutter answer to how one pulls this off, so the conceit of a self-conscious adolescent woman is actually kind of a good strategy for encouraging students to think through the problem on their own terms.
posted by felix betachat at 10:05 AM on July 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

I liked this piece, even reminding myself this is fiction. I wrote to a family member that everything we author is fiction, filtered through our visual processor, prejudices, desires, inabilities, and then accommodations to all of the above.

Without a doubt fiction becomes more thready when cross gendered, but every novelist projects the identities of the various characters in the fictions they write.

Why is it offensive that a short story is written by a man, regarding the thought processes of a young female, when writers of every gender, nationality, creed, screed write about members of another gender than the one they claim? Pshaw to sexism that poses as anti-sexism.

Maybe the writer isn't really Jewish either, so the writer has pretended to be of a particular religion. Fiction is fiction, just like my auto repair bills are fictions, like my cover letters to prospective employers, like any thing on paper a writer wants the reader to contemplate in three dimensions, rather than two, even paper only appears to be two dimensional, it is just really thin three dimensional space.

I liked this story as a three dimensional semantic piece, how all the ideas wrap around each other, that have flowed in and around my entire life, reduced to a few months in the life of a fictional teenage girl, neatly, I might say. Then the whole thing ends in web speak, tied up nicely with some beefy quotes.

Ummm delicious chicken armadillo sausage with pineapple, and caraway seeds, in the beard of my lover just after dinner.
posted by Oyéah at 10:08 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Interesting read. Gives me some things to ponder.
posted by joost de vries at 10:16 AM on July 24, 2010

P.S. If only my rationality would get in the way of my unhappiness.
posted by Oyéah at 10:20 AM on July 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

"Why is it offensive that a short story is written by a man, regarding the thought processes of a young female, when writers of every gender, nationality, creed, screed write about members of another gender than the one they claim?"

It's not inherently offensive, it's just that he's a shitty writer whose characters are mere cardboard props for the ideas he wishes to discuss, so when he takes a little timeout from his philosophizing to spend a para or two describing their lissomness, it makes you think it's because he's a bit creepshow. All writers reveal their vices in their characters --- smokers' smoke, drinkers' drink, and if Piers Anthony ain't a boob man I'll eat my hat. But perhaps we are too harsh; perhaps he's just a really, really shitty writer.

That para above perhaps reads angry; if it does I must plead my own infelicity. I assure you that I was far more bored than miffed, reading Mr. Aaronson. It was superlative in one thing; it was one of the most un-self-aware pieces I've encountered in some time. But then I do particularly loathe it when people choose to believe that they alone are rational while the rest of the world is irrational, they are not subject to that little universal frailty, though they wish they were, it's practically a disability, having such a superior understanding of truth, they only wish they could be more like you dumb schmucks, you happy mass, you band of mongoloids....
posted by Diablevert at 10:25 AM on July 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

I'm not totally comfortable with the fact that this man is basically writing this story about a woman--who constantly refers to men through the whole thing as the basis for each thing, with all of this expressed in terms of her ability to accept the romantic propositions of men as a measure of her ability to be happy?

It's not that the idea is fundamentally flawed, but the execution was revolting enough that I had difficulty finishing it. It's not that it's just a man writing about a woman. It's that this story fundamentally doesn't work unless the protagonist is a woman, because all the assumptions about it are based in gender bias. Not as heavily as they could be, but far more heavily than they should be, which is to say, than they would be if the author weren't kind of an ass.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:29 AM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

If only my rationality would get in the way of my unhappiness.

True that. So, so true.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:31 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

When the discussion focuses on what's uninteresting about a post instead of focusing on what's interesting it's typical metafilter.
posted by joost de vries at 10:34 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

So. Drugs & bullshit make you feel good. Also punctuation is bad. Anything else?
posted by eeeeeez at 10:49 AM on July 24, 2010

Maybe this tale wanders into double-gender bias, and he describes her lissomeness and red hair, in order to keep the males interested in the central character.

I think the central character is a metaphor for Psyche, in any case, and that metaphor is nicely housed in the still forming character of a young girl. From this metaphoric platform the writer ranges from delusional rationality, to delusional irrationality, with attribution to many writers who have covered the range of philosophies and whatever you want to call people like Grof, who discuss dream work.

I guess if I hadn't just finished reading a whole huge range of writers in the field of education, exhaustively for the last year, I might have had more trouble reading this tale. It was easy to shed the central character (the cardboard cutout) and look at the range of intellectual discourse he covered in the longish short story.

I did not find him to be a "bad" writer, but then again, I started it as a story, finished up as a philosophical piece. It was easy to intellectually ingest in a single byte, and I still liked the work.

Creative types, especially artists and writers have to pull from their environment to create imagery. I guess "in these hot days the mad blood is stirring." I liked all the metaphor, finding her father's spirit in the form of a half-finished manuscript, almost like the half of her DNA that he contributed. It still functions even in his absence.

Maybe in his teaching he has seen a red haired girl, he wonders about, but maybe "Mr. Creepy" is remembering someone who once was dear to him, or a hyper-rational girl that once turned him down, and still he reveres her to some degree. If she had burnt him to the ground he would not have spoken through her so affectionately. Maybe he sees a lot of intellectual social hyperbole, on the MIT campus, youthful poses can be painful.

I guess I just don't find reason to quarrel with the writer, as long as he hasn't written the whole thing to attract a special red haired student.
posted by Oyéah at 10:55 AM on July 24, 2010

whose characters are mere cardboard props for the ideas he wishes to discuss

True, but that's also true of a lot of great short science fiction. This is an idea-oriented piece, which I gathered from skimming it briefly before deciding to read it. The most ideal rewriting of this piece I can imagine would still probably be character deficient simply because it's not really about a high school girl getting a date, it's about Big Philosophical Ideas.
posted by Marla Singer at 10:58 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

smokers' smoke, drinkers' drink, and if Piers Anthony ain't a boob man I'll eat my hat

Really? You read stuff by Piers Anthony and concluded that what he likes is boobs?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess the article is founded upon a dichotomy between being rational and intelligent and being socially and sexually succesful.

I think some people have both faculties and can employ them when appropriate.

But I guess it is true that when you only have either you put more energy in it and it becomes more pronounced.
And that's why being very nerdy has a connotation of social loser. It can a sign of having copped out of the social and sexual game.

Also the enumeration of type-1 thinkers, type-2 thinkers etc looks a bit similar to typed logic. But I don't think that we're that linear. There's a difference between what you think and what you say. Also we humans can have different believes depending on context and know it.
So I can be foolish when that amuses me and the people I'm with but still be aware that I'm not behaving very intelligently nor very rationally. And later I can behave with a measure of rationality and intelligence when that is required. For instance when writing a paper in academia.
And I can behave flirtingly to a woman and leave purely rational possible sidepaths of the conversation for what they are because I don't think they're appropriate.
posted by joost de vries at 11:11 AM on July 24, 2010

All writers reveal their vices in their characters --- smokers' smoke, drinkers' drink, and if Piers Anthony ain't a boob man I'll eat my hat.

If your theory is true, then I don't ever, ever want to meet Chuck Palahniuk.
posted by Marla Singer at 11:11 AM on July 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm not trying to thread-shit, but if I didn't like the first three paragraphs (and was in fact repulsed by the writing) then does it get better? Should I power through?
No. I kept going because I'd always heard good things about the writing program at MIT. This wasn't written by anyone associated with the writing program.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:14 AM on July 24, 2010

This piece -- most especially the first two sections -- is a case study in how writers violate the "show, don't tell" rule.

The narrator/journal writer is not someone who is hyper-rational. She is someone who is an annoying teenager who has adopted an affectation of what she believes to be hyper-rationality and then acts out that role as only an annoying teenager or a piss-poor author can. I think it's an interesting question to ask how you would portray someone who was hyper-rational, but this story isn't it.
posted by deanc at 11:15 AM on July 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

"Look, there’s an obvious paradox in the idea of 'rationalist literature.' Almost by definition, people who like rationality are going to want to write dry, methodical arguments, rather than novels or poems that bypass the neocortex and directly engage the emotions."

That's from Scott Aaronson's blog post on "Literature that skewers pompous fools", so I think he is likely self-aware. Also, that story definitely has some Ayn Rand influence.
posted by parudox at 11:47 AM on July 24, 2010

Why is it offensive that a short story is written by a man, regarding the thought processes of a young female, when writers of every gender, nationality, creed, screed write about members of another gender than the one they claim? Pshaw to sexism that poses as anti-sexism.

When I read your comment, I wondered if I missed something. I went back to check, but the only comments about the story I see are here on MeFi.

The only comment you could be responding to seems to be Pope Guilty's, and that has a specific complaint: "A man writing as an attractive woman describing herself isn't at all creepy either." You've turned that into a blanket condemnation of men writing women somehow, and made accusations of sexism based on that.

Or are you saying that it's either one or the other--that we have to either unquestioningly accept every portrayal of a woman written by a man or think that men shouldn't write women at all?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:47 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

This reminded me of Lacan's idea: les non-dupes errent, the non-duped err. Those who don't allow themselves to be caught in the symbolic fiction that structures our social reality miss the fact that it still has efficacy.
Distrust of the big Other (the order of symbolic fictions), the subject's refusal to "take it seriously," relies on the belief that there is an "Other of the Other," a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively "pulls the strings" behind the visible, public Power. This other, obscene, invisible power structure acts the part of the "Other of the Other" in the Lacanian sense, the part of the meta-guarantee of the consistency of the big Other (the symbolic order that regulates social life).
What this means is that the opposition to the "naive" belief in symbolic fictions is an even more naive belief: that there is a truly rational, lawful order to the universe, we can ensure our well-being by aligning ourselves to it. It's interesting that rationalists and religious people come to exactly opposite conclusions regarding the existence or non-existence of God. For the religious person, the non-existence of God would mean the world is chaotic and ungoverned, there is no moral order to the universe. For the rationalist, it's the opposite, the world would be chaotic if God did exist, it would mean that supernatural being could reach down and overturn the rational laws of Nature, and disrupt our predictions. Behind the apparent disagreement is a shared belief that a guarantee must exist, but in reality, both fail to provide this. The Bible can't be used to guide one's life because it is filled with inconsistencies, and science can't even predict the weather. These failure are both covered up with faith - in the after life, God will reveal his plan; in the future, our scientific knowledge will uncover the truth of how human life should be lived and organized.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:57 AM on July 24, 2010 [17 favorites]

This is why I don't read fiction and the name "Alyssa" (knowing this dude chose this name and for these purposes) is creeping me out. I've never liked men writing about teen girls, even that book by Tom Wolfe. It was so gross and weird.
posted by anniecat at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2010

For whatever it is worth this story reminds me of exactly why I hate the "computer geek" culture. A belief in being hyperrational for the sake of being hyperrational and using it to justify being a jerk. I thought that the characters were completely plausible and reminded me a good deal of computer programmers I used to know. So maybe the writing was bad but I think the point was enormously clear.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 12:09 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take note: Most teen girls think Edward Cullen wouldn't go on about "pabloid breasts."

I'm not sure why I think this is offensive, but most teen girls don't think like that. Maybe men who've been spurned by attractive women think that women/girls think like that and that's why girls who reject them won't go out with them.

Aren't there enough poor stereotypes of teen girls? He can't write this piece from a guy's perspective instead? Because that was horrible and I haven't gotten through the whole thing yet.
posted by anniecat at 12:11 PM on July 24, 2010

As ever, the postmodernists' understanding of modernism is childish and rudimentary at best.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:11 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Hardcore Poser : Its about an overthinker who becomes an underthinker.
eeeeeez : So. Drugs & bullshit make you feel good. Also punctuation is bad. Anything else?

Welcome to college, where bright young minds learn to binge and purge.
posted by pla at 12:14 PM on July 24, 2010

Aren't there enough poor stereotypes of teen girls? He can't write this piece from a guy's perspective instead? Because that was horrible and I haven't gotten through the whole thing yet.

If you wrote it from a guys perspective I have a feeling that there is no way in hell that most CS majors would read it. Which speaks volumes about CS majors.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 12:15 PM on July 24, 2010

anniecat : Aren't there enough poor stereotypes of teen girls?

That story falls about as far from establishing any plausible "stereotypes" as you could ask for.

Or should all writers abandon anything but "the facts have been changed to protect the innocent"-style fiction, and only write about, say, teen girls engaging in large conspiracies to drive their peers to suicide?

I'd take hyperrational-and-unhappy over the latter "truth" any day.
posted by pla at 12:21 PM on July 24, 2010

I have some sad news for Professor Aaronson.

Even if you were able to go back through high school with everything you know now, you still wouldn't be able to get laid.

You're too creepy.
posted by jamjam at 12:22 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

A belief in being hyperrational for the sake of being hyperrational and using it to justify being a jerk. I thought that the characters were completely plausible and reminded me a good deal of computer programmers I used to know. So maybe the writing was bad but I think the point was enormously clear.

I agree, but I also think that this is the reason why the story was so bad: instead of creating a "hyperrational" character and exploring the logical conclusions and shortcomings of a character who literally cannot be anything but hyperrational, the author instead writes the "straw hyperrational" of a teenager who is just being annoying. If unintentional, it's a sign of bad writing and didacticism. If intentional, it's a sign of poor argumentation. Though I suppose the short story might work well as a platform social/etiquette lessons.
posted by deanc at 12:26 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Deanc: Well yes but I think a good many CS majors are just being annoying. :) Nerd culture around computer science tends to emphasize being a hyperlogical character. Not because its the only thing you can do (although I think nerds do it for so long they forget they stop believing they can do other things), but because that is what they are supposed to emulate to be accepted in nerd culture. You can be the best programmer in the world and if you are not willing to play the part of the hyperlogical guy nerd culture typically wants nothing to do with you. So I don't think that the story is that unrealistic. If the girl was a guy everyone would be agreeing with the way he was portrayed.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 12:30 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, jamjam, people who did not get laid in high school are losers, and as adults if they try to understand it, change to fit in better, or perhaps just try to help other people they think might be similarly socially isolated, that makes them creepy.
posted by Nothing at 12:34 PM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Scott Aaronson comes across like some kind of retard whenever he talks about stuff other then math or human relationships. Although I think it is true that intelligence does get in the way of getting into relationships.
Take what happened this afternoon. This guy Eric who sits next to me in BC calculus was ogling me the whole period. He's not the first; plenty of guys at Westbrook High drool over me until they discover my psychotic hyperrationality. And ought I to blame them? My orange hair is lustrous, my high cheekbones reliable Darwinian indicators of fertility, my breasts—what adjective won't sound hackneyed?—paraboloid. Their volumes are given roughly by ½πR2L,
Oh my god.
posted by delmoi at 12:41 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

You can be the best programmer in the world and if you are not willing to play the part of the hyperlogical guy nerd culture typically wants nothing to do with you.

Maybe to some extent in college. But in the real world this has not been my experience. The older the programmers in question get, this goes away -- they're married, have kids, etc and calm down. If you're working primarily with college or just-out-of-college kids, I could see it, depending on the workplace.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2010

Will y'all quit confusing the narrator and the author, please? It's a little bit like calling Nabokov a pedophile. (Not that Aaronson is anywhere in Nabokov's league.)

Oh, Nabokov wasn't a pedophile. His obsession with the problem of solipsism, that does show up in his works and his auto-bio. Also his homophobia. Although he was a bit Tex Avery about college-aged girls, in real life, apparently. And you can make arguments for that in the work, too, like the way Laughter in the Dark pre-figures Lolita.

But anyway, Aaronson's physical description of the characters is probably more ham-handed than objectionable --- put in place to serve as a bulwark against the reader's possible prejudice that any character so geeky must be physically repulsive and incapable of attracting the attention of handsome men. No, no, Aaronson clarifies, she's a red-head with big tits, and so therefore clearly desirable, were it not for her flawed mind. We're bringing the focus back on to the ideas, you see.

He keeps aiming for this tone of slight hyperbole, trying to balance on the knife-edge of farce. In my opinion he slips a fair bit and his shins are bloody.
posted by Diablevert at 1:27 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

A type-n thinker is a thinker that is defined by some other type-n thinkers as being a sort of thinker that typifies n-ness.
posted by clvrmnky at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2010

I can't decide if I loved this or hated this. On one hand, I theoretically enjoyed the beginning (theoretically because parts of its construction were horrifying -- in particular, the section delmoi quoted -- although, I think, that paragraph could be amusing if it were intentionally written to prove that middle-aged male MIT professors don't understand the thought processes of teenage girls, hyperrational or not), as I found I sort of identified with Ilyssa (the initial conscious defiance of punctuation and capitalization rang particularly true). Unfortunately, it all seemed to fall apart by the end (I absolutely agree with redthinker's critique of the heavy-handedness) in much the same way as Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which this story reminded me of almost immediately.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2010

Will y'all quit confusing the narrator and the author, please?

I don't think that anyone is. The author is attempting to make a point with this story. His point, and the way that he chooses to make it, reflects his own attitudes. People here seem to be criticizing those.

The author does seem to confuse himself with his narrator at least some of the time, though. His description of his character, especially how she considers her physical beauty, strikes me as being made from the outside, from the point of view of a particular type of academic man who hasn't come to the full realization that women are people yet, although he may believe intellectually that women are equal.

I am all for separating the narrator and the author when criticizing the story, but the truth is that often authors don't separate themselves from their narrators in the first place. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it's not, and sometimes it's a mixture of both (like with this story, I believe).

Although I agree that using "retard" as an insult is not cool and I wish that no one would do it here.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:31 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to give this another shot, reading it instead as a philosophical argument instead of a story. Because as a story it just ... grated me. Like Parmesan cheese.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:55 PM on July 24, 2010

As ever, the postmodernists' understanding of modernism is childish and rudimentary at best.

As ever, Pope Guilty's sole contribution is snark designed to make it appear that he something to say.
posted by atrazine at 2:43 PM on July 24, 2010

Scott Aaronson comes across like some kind of retard whenever he talks about stuff other then math...

All experts sound like idiots when they talk outside their area of expertise.

I know this because I'm an expert!
posted by erniepan at 2:46 PM on July 24, 2010

What. Is. This. The author might have a good idea in there, but I couldn't get passed the bad writing. Which mean I made it halfway through the first paragraph before skimming the remainder and going, "Oh dear. Does this person read anything but bad sci-fi?"

His writing reminded me of that one excerpt of "very purple" science fiction on vandovan's livejournal account (sadly suspended now). If someone has a link somewhere else, I'd appreciate it!
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:54 PM on July 24, 2010

I found the story extremely tedious and the prose hard to get through, so I did start skimming eventually and may have missed a lot.

But as far as I can tell, this is a story told from the point of view of an obsessively insane person who starts the story with a form of insanity focusing on an obsessive preoccupation with "rationality" and ends it with an obsessive preoccupation with "irrationality". Throughout, other characters attempt to explain to her that she is being crazy, but she doesn't/can't listen because she is crazy.

I'm ... not entirely sure what the point is, other than perhaps the old idea that if you take a die-hard Skeptic and breach their skepticism, you get not an open-minded person but instead a die-hard True Believer.

The utter cluelessness about high-school dynamics and other matters also makes a lot of the story very hard to swallow. Writing quality *matters* for the transmission of ideas.
posted by kyrademon at 3:08 PM on July 24, 2010

well, what I have to say is that the cited Lacan passage betrays the strawman of fanatical, blind, religious faith in SCIENCE! that the postmodernists like to pretend is somehow typical of modernists. It's a complete fabrication, a strawman that postmodernists like to pull out to beat on so that they can pretend they have original ideas instead of revealing themselves as not postmodernists but antimodernists. The insistence on attacking this strawman is part of why postmodernism is so goddamn worthless.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:22 PM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I agree with a lot of the criticisms here, and found the story interesting but barely worth reading, but my major problem with it as a story is that there is no in-depth explanation of how she moves from hyper-rationality to New-Age loopiness. Sure, there is the plot device about her sister informing her that her father was nuts, and there is Eliot...but what is happening inside (something focused upon in most of the story)?

It's like the movie Stand and Deliver. It was based on a true story about a teacher pushing barrio kids into mathematical brilliance, but we never see the turning point. In the first part (and in teacher movies, teachers have one small class, not five or six big ones), we see the kids as smart-ass school haters. All of the sudden (after a few aggressive humorous put-downs by the teacher; that's supposed to be the point, I guess) they are all at his beck and call.

Transformation of character is key to a story: it must be explained.
posted by kozad at 4:43 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a nerdy, overly rational person, I didn't really find the character to be *that* implausible. As for people saying the breast quote was stupid and unrealistic... you do remember how stupid you were in high school, right? Though I'd wager a nerdy woman might be applying geometric principles in other ways.

But I do agree that the writing isn't that great; I ended up skimming the latter most of it.

Also there are much better ways of reconciling "type 0" thinking with "type 1+" thinking. The trick is that most beliefs that are advantageous but untrue are, or at least can be formed to be nonsensical and meaningless in a rational sense. For example self confidence, "I am the best!" is an advantageous attitude to have in many situations. But what does that even mean "I am the best..." at what? It doesn't mean anything rationally without being more specific, but it works fine regardless, so why bother?

And worst case there's always good old fashioned human doublethink where you can believe to opposing things at the same time. Heck if you look small enough pretty much everything in the universe is in multiple mutually exclusive states at the same time until they actually need to be in one or the other.

Err... I guess, in summation, from a super rational nerdy perspective this is kinda dumb, too.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:52 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with a lot of the criticisms here, and found the story interesting but barely worth reading

Yeah, I'd like to argue some points in general terms -- that Aaronson is somehow creepy for writing from a young woman's perspective, for instance (plenty of female YA writers have written from male perspectives, and I don't recall a single case of them catching hell for it) -- but honestly, this story was so much a tl;dr for me that I really just can't. Maybe it becomes seriously objectionable in some creepy way a little ways down the page, but judging from the number of quotes pulled from the first several paragraphs, my guess is that most of the people taking Aaronson to task couldn't get any farther than I did. I will say that there seems to be very little credit given to Aaronson w/r/t the reliability of his narrator; it's fair to say, I guess*, that a woman "wouldn't" say this or think that, but the point of the story seems to be that this is someone who in some respects is being less than honest with herself and is basically kind of a poseur, so anything that reads as forced or unnatural may well be intentional. I think it's pretty clear that Aaronson isn't putting her out there as anything like a normal person (I did get far enough to see the contrast with the sister), and so I don't get the emphasis on whether he can write a realistic young woman convincingly when...well...she's obviously intended to be a fucking weirdo. All that said, while the writing itself is sound, I found myself rewatching The IT Crowd in another window, so there's really no way I can argue this is anything like a good story.

*I think this is bullshit because it presumes that all young women are more or less the same, which in any other context wouldn't fly at all around these parts, but whatever
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:01 PM on July 24, 2010

I must amend my parenthetical comment about female YA writers to note Stephanie Meyer as a clear exception, but I think she's plainly...um...a special case.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:08 PM on July 24, 2010

Considering only her reactions to being asked out; I would conclude that this character may be brain damaged. Yes, someone is asking for an opportunity to get to know you with intent to seduce you if things seem like they might go well. You down with that? Apparently not. Curious about this bit of polite indirection that's part of the human mating ritual? Consider the alternatives.

I like the point-of-view and I like the ideas being explored with it, but it would make much more sense to me coming from a Martian. A teenager flush with hormones and a maturing neo-cortex deals with the same primal human stuff, but sees the schisms created by our evolved brains from the inside. It's a terrifying, wonderful, utterly confusing state, full of little disasters and vast ephemera. All sorts of great art has been made from the experience and I believe there's still much more to be made but I doubt if this is going to be one of them.
posted by wobh at 8:22 PM on July 24, 2010

Oh, not to mention, the end state of the story is straight up insulting. Fuck you too, Aaronson.
posted by wobh at 8:33 PM on July 24, 2010

Well I guess we should be thankful for Aaronson's restraint in omitting the erotic dream sequence about Ilyssa's sapphic awakening amid the obliquely rhomboidal hollows of Tracy's more pulchritudinous older sister, Angela.
posted by applemeat at 8:53 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

There is no rational. There is a neuro-electric stew of something doing something in our headmeat neuroscientists are desperate to explain. There is epistemology, which is being fought out at fundamental, basic level with a white-hot fury by intellectuals equipped with semi-functioning neuro-electric stews of their own.

We can't define what "is" is, and those who are trying are tapping into wells of intuition, introspection and contemplation, relying on the imperfect chemical morass of brain to somehow translate correctly into mind.

We are, by definition, irrational in a myriad of ways. We seek to expunge and slice away the imperfections of illogical, yet this denies intuition and inspiration.

In short... just, no. He doesn't know what he thinks he knows. Busy beaver my ass.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:57 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fuck you too, Aaronson.

Really? That's how you want to play this one?
posted by felix betachat at 8:59 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most obnoxious thing of all, however, is the implicit idea that socialization does not require, and is not, grounded in intelligence.

A better story would have a brilliant engineer exploited out of his ideas by a savvy business person.

Why? Because this really happens every day - and it demonstrates just how "stupid" people who condescend to social acumen in the name of their rational intelligence really are.

Non-"nerds" still run the world, and there's a good reason for that. They're smarter than the rest of us in absolutely crucial ways.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:08 PM on July 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

Gah. I tried. Dear lord help me, I tried. But it's just not possible for me to slog through that mess. I'm not really sure what the point is, but I know the writing did nothing to make me care. (Especially the feeble attempts at humor.)

Also, I'd be careful how much stock you put into the stereotyping unthread about computer programmers, many of whom are not only "creative types" (as opposed to the stereotypical hyperrational types), but also actually have pretty well-developed social lives. Heck, I've even known several who were in popular indie bands on the side.

A better story would have a brilliant engineer exploited out of his ideas by a savvy business person.

Sorry, but to me, this example would only demonstrate the principle that sociopathic ass hats tend to win. Lack of ethical principle is hardly proof of "social acumen." On the contrary, it only demonstrates a particular known form of psychological dysfunction--chiefly, a lack of development in the complex of core social skills that make up the capacity for empathy.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by saulgoodman at 9:26 PM on July 24, 2010

What? An engineering professor is using a narrow and self-serving conception of rationality to make poorly thought-out philosophical points in a derivative narrative structure?

It's almost like insights in one discipline only provide limited insights into another discipline, or something. Well, I listened to a podcast about Heidegger last night, so I'm off to build an airplane!
posted by Marty Marx at 9:27 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

> I would conclude that this character may be brain damaged.

Well, yeah. Schizophrenic, in fact. The story states as much when her older sister tells her about her father's prolonged mental illness. The hyper-rationality stage in high school is the prodromal phase of her illness.

Rather, that's the reading that makes the most sense to me. This character isn't merely intelligent, she's actually mentally ill. That helps me make sense of the two other very intelligent female characters in the story -- her older sister Shoshona and her friend Tracy -- both of whom are able to negotiate social situations just fine, while also being high achievers intellectually.

At any rate, the main character is clearly *never* a character to aspire to be like, neither in her hyper-rational phase nor in her Flowers for Algernon decline. This is a story about not being like her.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

To give the man his due, it should be pointed out, for all you skimmers, that while this is very poorly written, it is a poorly written attempt at satire. What he's going for here is Candide, not Catcher. Ironically, it's his more vivid and true to life details that are bollixing him up - there's a passage about a Jewish funeral that reads as if it was written by someone who's actually been to a Jewish funeral. They throw one off in a 1st person narrative in which the main character is a teenage girl which does not read as if the writer actually knows any teenaged girls. If you're going to play Paper Mario, play Paper Mario. But we should at least give him the credit that this is a failed attempt at using comic hyperbole to construct a satire, not a failed attempt a touching coming of age tale or psychological thriller.
posted by Diablevert at 9:39 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is this post meant to expose this guy for the creeper that he really is? Scott Aaronson, if you are reading this: I am a hot babe 21 year old doing my Formal Languages take-home midterm right now. I AM SO GLAD I DID NOT TAKE JAVA 101 FROM U

Is this post meant to gift MetaFilter with this guy's writing? "Yesterday there was a knock on my bedroom door, and i opened it and it was Shoshana. She was wearing part of her wedding gown (i guess to see whether it needed more alterations) and she'd just had her hair permed so she looked really beautiful."

What was the point of this post???????????????
posted by 200burritos at 9:49 PM on July 24, 2010

I don't think there's anything inherently creepy about a guy writing from the point of view of a young woman, but it can be done in a creepy, lacking-self-awareness way and this is it. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote one of the most convincing young female characters I've ever read in Never Let Me Go, for instance, because he seemed to have some sort of understanding about how young women frame things in their mind and act towards each other. I could see the narrator and her friends acting out similar dynamics from my own childhood. I didn't ever stop and think, "Ugh, this is how some guy who doesn't understand women thinks women think," and there was a lot of sex and relationship stuff going on so the potential for any lack of self-awareness to be exposed was high. Any flaws in characterization seemed consistent across genders; I thought the characters themselves were a bit too bland and humorless to be real, but at least the men were the same way. This short story, on the other hand, reads as painfully un-self-aware.

There is nothing of the first bit of this story -- I couldn't even get past that; it's too much when every sentence stops me short -- that is excused by the character's hyper-rationality making her unusual in this particular regard. If anything, I relate to hyper-rational female characters more than others, but only when they're done well. The way she thinks about herself, and of being ogled, reads the way that adolescent boys might wish girls imagine that sort of thing; the language used just sounds like the language someone else would use to describe her, not the language someone would use to describe herself, even if she was Vulcan.

This is nowhere on par with thinking that Nabokov must be a pedophile. This is nothing like "confusing the author and the narrator;" that's usually a problem of an unsophisticated reader assuming that the author must agree with everything their horrible protagonist thinks, while sophisticated readers can tell that the author is just doing a great job of showing how the protagonist views himself while putting in tons of clues (usually in other characters' reactions, but also in events) that the protagonist's behavior is misguided or despicable. The problem with confusing the author and the narrator is all too often that the writer inhabits a character so fully, so convincingly, that readers who don't catch the clues feel the character to be a real person, and that real person must be the author.

This, to put it gently, is nowhere in the ballpark of convincing. This is a writer unwittingly exposing one of his blind spots. To be fair, it's possible that his main flaw is instead a general inability to inhabit any character in a realistic way -- that even a male character written by him would sound like a third person perspective stapled to first person pronouns. Since he's not typically a writer I'll go ahead and believe that in good faith. I could even see how he might purposely choose a female narrator because he thought the hyper-rational person in every story is usually a guy, and he feels strongly that women are just as capable of being hyper-rational. It could be general clumsiness and feminism instead of even deeply buried sexism, in other words.

The unfortunate thing is, especially to women who are used to reading female characters poorly written by men, it ultimately doesn't matter; whether the author is actually sexist or just can't write convincingly from any perspective, I've read enough to know that I don't want to bother reading any more. I don't feel offended by possible sexism or anything (though I naturally wonder a bit) I just get hung up every sentence by that voice that says "this doesn't ring true" and talks over the story. I would have to constantly fight and make excuses for the story to enjoy it, and who wants to do that when there are so many other things to read?

It is a shame, though, because it's an intriguing premise -- that's the whole reason I clicked it, after all. Anyway, my point is not to rag on the story -- good on Aaronson, or anyone, for writing anything; rock on -- but to explain that it's not that odd a reaction to cringe away from the narration because it betrays an inability to convincingly get inside someone else's head.
posted by Nattie at 9:53 PM on July 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

If your theory is true, then I don't ever, ever want to meet Chuck Palahniuk.
posted by Marla Singer at 11:11 AM on July 24

posted by bkudria at 9:55 PM on July 24, 2010


Fair enough then, consider my comment retracted.
posted by atrazine at 10:32 PM on July 24, 2010

This story actively hates me. The gap between irrationality and the Charly-asymptotically-approaching lousy grammar, punctuation, and spelling is vast. Cognitive bias does not mean that you do not know what a semicolon is. Gracious. Many of the deeply wrong people of the world are well-spoken. He's managed to conflate these two separate things.

The perhaps worst conceit of the story is that the Type-0 is this sort of baseline of rationality which gets layered over with other things. Nothing could be further from the truth in the human animal. The mind is not an engine of cool consideration, but a Rube Goldberg contraption that ends up perpetuating the species. Actual rationality must be worked towards, not the other way around.

For the story goal (forcing a choice between rational-and-dreary and irrational-and-happy), he really ought to have had her raised as a secret schizoid. Her father has trained her to identify cognitive bias wherever it lives, to dissect all arguments, to view everything as game theory, starting with an appeal to childish ego and building on top of it. Her superiority leaves her forever isolated. Then, after her father dies, nobody is there to support this constant training regimen of rationality. She begins to wonder if an irrational life where she is at the center of things is preferable to a rational life where you're just a temporary swirl of atoms. Does she continue training and self-reinforcement or does she let her guard down?

This is bad writing in pursuit of an excluded middle, all operating under the central and terrible illusion that fiction can prove something, rather than anything.
posted by adipocere at 11:38 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

73 comments and no discussion of what the word Bounded means in the title? I think people are harshly criticizing something that they aren't even the audience for. First and foremost it was likely a personal creative exercise, and second, for use in a classroom setting. Way to go people, taking a text out of context.

posted by polymodus at 12:17 AM on July 25, 2010

The first thing to keep in mind is that this story was written eight years before Scott became an M.I.T. faculty member and one year after he finished a bachelor's degree in computer science at the age of nineteen. He also wrote a short piece that describes some of his thoughts about the one year he spent in high school. It's pretty clear that he didn't spend a lot of time interacting with other kids his age. It's also clear, mostly from other sources, that he's a very, very smart guy. That excuses nothing of course, but I think it does help explain it.

I'm not Scott Aaronson, but I've read his blog on and off for a few years now, and at one point in my life I would not have understood why anyone would find this story creepy, and I certainly would not have understood why anyone would say it demonstrated a lack of self-awareness. These days, like many of you, I find it quite difficult to read. I can't speak for Scott, but I can speak for myself.

From my perspective, as a moderately smart guy and something of a recovering jerk, this story reads like an attempt to understand the way other people think. I think it's notable mostly for how badly it fails at that, but that's to be expected (if not excused) given the size of the gap in play here. The incomprehension is mutual. I think most of you understand that there is a gap better than the average guy like me did or does, but I may be able to shed some light on why that gap exists.

Imagine that you discovered at a very young age that you enjoyed solving puzzles, and were really, really good at it. You might spend most of your time doing it, especially if you were encouraged to do so. You might even prefer it to interacting with other kids your age, especially if no other kids you knew had much interest in puzzles, or weren't as good at solving them as you were. Imagine that as you got older you got more and more encouragement for solving puzzles, and the more you did it the better you got, and the better you got the more you enjoyed it, and the harder it was to find anyone else who could even understand the puzzles you enjoyed, let alone could carry on a interesting conversation with you about them.

For the vast majority of us, other people are that puzzle. We are more interested in other people than in pretty much anything else. If you think that sounds banal, you'd be right. If you think that sounds wrong, there's a very very high chance that's because it's so obvious that you don't even think about it, and a small chance that you have a personality disorder and/or are one of the people for whom that puzzle really is a puzzle. What is it like to be that kind of person? You might think it would involve spending less time thinking about and interacting with other people than average, and you'd be right. But it goes deeper than that.

Human behavior is far too complex to understand or predict with conscious reasoning. We get around that problem with the clever shortcut of pretending that other people think pretty much like we do - that is to say we simulate their conscious and subconscious minds by observing our own - and making adjustments from there. This actually works quite well, if you think the way most people think. If you don't think the way most people think, you have to make more adjustments. Sometimes those adjustments are not easy to make.

Being really good at puzzles doesn't just mean you spend less time getting to know how other people think, it also means you are spending all your time using your conscious mind to concentrate on solving problems. Of course your subconscious mind does a lot of the work, but the more elaborate things your conscious mind has to do to keep track of the puzzles you're working on, the easier it is to lose site of this. You spend so much time training and using your conscious mind that it becomes your identity.

Now imagine what happens when someone like that has to interact with a normal person: At no point does anything other than conscious reasoning about conscious reasoning come into play. They will attempt to simulate the other person's mind with their own, which tells them that the other person is a hyper-rational puzzle solver. The predictions this makes break down almost immediately, so the mind adjusts from this baseline by making the observation that the other person is not as good as they are at solving puzzles, and is therefore less rational (which is almost certainly correct). This is still not enough to predict what the other person is going to do, so we now enter full puzzle solving mode. All conscious effort is focused on trying to solve the puzzle of what this normal person is going to do, or, heaven forbid, what they might be thinking. Here a miracle occurs, because this sometimes actually produces an insight, that, coupled with our hyper-rationalist's remaining unfettered instincts, allows him or her to complete the interaction to his or her satisfaction (if not always to the satisfaction of the other person).

Now imagine that this person is nineteen or twenty years old and trying to figure out why so many people seem so... irrational.

Maybe this sounds completely bizarre to you (or maybe it sounds obvious and/or patronizing - if so I apologize!), but if it does that's because human beings are a wildly diverse bunch. Smart people aren't always this clueless about other people (although I was), and there may be things at work other than just the gap in thinking styles (there were for me), but I think it's also worth remembering that Plato had similar ideas about the relationship of the emotions to rationality. As incorrect (and potentially dysfunctional) as it may be, this style of thinking has played an important role in Western thought. This story does have something to say about rationality, it just isn't quite what you might have thought at first glance.
posted by the atomic kung fu panda bandit inquisition at 2:43 AM on July 25, 2010 [11 favorites]

... wait, this story isn't supposed to be a some guy's masturbatory fantasy about unobtainable girls?

It reminded me very much of Star Trek fanfiction written from the first person point of view of Spock - to the extent that I was waiting for the phrase 'Ponn Farr' to appear, and then Captain Kirk to appear and bang the narrator senseless.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:38 AM on July 25, 2010

>> Fuck you too, Aaronson.

> Really? That's how you want to play this one?

I suppose not. Aaronson is probably playing around; trying things out. I shouldn't fault him because I saw a kind of viscous cynicism about the whole fictional situation, especially at the end. I would review to see if there was more textual evidence or maybe even authorial commentary justifying it, but I'm done thinking about it.

I'm sorry for lashing out Aaronson. An irrational feeling came over me.
posted by wobh at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2010

I read the whole story. Yes, the writing is pretty bad (but considering that the author was 20 when he wrote it, and that he's not primarily a writer, that's forgivable).

Despite the poor (and at moments cringeworthy) writing, I was kind of captivated in the beginning. Aaronson sets up the narrative to examine some really interesting topics that are directly relevant to things I've been pondering lately: namely, how I might better reconcile my own hyper-rational personality with, you know, living in society.

(The author clearly meant to exaggerate the narrator's personality—but it's not that much of an exaggeration, and I definitely identified with her in the beginning. Responding to romantic overtures with weird hyper-logical remarks, for example? Anyone who thinks that's unrealistic has never been a high-school-aged geek. I'm still struggling to make sense of some the conundrums Ilyssa faces, which is why I find the story interesting. I've seen few texts that even attempt to examine these issues with any depth.)

But the story never delivers on its promise. It takes a few arbitrary turns into the incoherent, and just kind of drives in that general direction until it runs of out of gas. The End! (I think I actually said "What the hell?" aloud when I finished it.)

Still, it's got me thinking, and it's generated some interesting ideas here, so I don't think it's entirely worthless.

kung fu panda, I wish I could favorite your comment twenty times. The growing-up experience you describe was pretty much mine to a T.

Like all people, the part of my brain that's concerned with theory-of-mind—modelling the internal states of others—tends to assume that other people think more or less the same way I do. Most people don't, though. (I'm not suggesting that my way of thinking is better—but I can assure you, from over three decades of experience, that it's different. And I'm not talking about mere differences in the assumptions and premises that we bring to the table; I'm talking about fundamentally and profoundly different understandings of what a sensible and coherent thought process looks like.)

So I often discover that other people believe and feel things that I can't make sense of. It can cause some pretty severe cognitive dissonance: one part of me "knows" that this person frames the world in the same way I do, but another part of me knows that they believe things that are completely incoherent in terms of that framing. This puzzles me, and I can't resist a puzzle—so I have a natural (though not necessarily wise) instinct to press the issue, hoping to solve the puzzle.

This very rarely ends well. And, yeah, sometimes that frustration causes me to act in ways that some would call (perhaps accurately) dickish. I sometimes feel (perhaps unreasonably) that the person has handed me a rigged puzzle—and then gotten pissed at me when I've dared to complain that the puzzle is rigged.

It's genuinely difficult to find a solution to this problem that doesn't involve discarding my drive to solve puzzles (i.e., to understand the world around me), concluding that the vast majority of people are idiots, and/or simply giving up on being a part of society. And I'm not prepared to to any of those things.

(I read a couple of entries in the author's blog. He's actually a pretty good writer now.)
posted by ixohoxi at 8:55 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know what she's doing. I've seen people I love do it. It's quite familiar to me.

She's inventing a story to explain what she says and does--a story that has nothing to do with reality.

Her "rationality" is not getting in her way. Her confusion is. She'll say things that are off-putting, passive-aggressive, and insulting. But she'll explain it away, and blame her "rationality" as the problem.

In reality, she does it on purpose. She can't admit that, or allow herself to "get" her own behavior.

She's probably conflicted about sex, her feelings toward men, etc. (After all, who isn't?) And she's simultaneously proud of, and scared of, her attractiveness.

It's based on insecurity. You can either be annoyed with it, or humor it, depending on whether you like her. People have their silly problems, quirks and idiosyncrasies. They can still be good friends, lovers, or spouses. You just have to accept their odd bits.
posted by noahhs at 9:01 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

noahhs, I'm going to propose a chain of reasoning. Would you humor me by identifying the point where your thinking diverges with mine?

1. Human beings differ in the way the way they approach the problem of understanding reality.

2. One notable way they differ is that some people take a more intuitive, emotion-based approach, whereas some people take a more logical, intellect-based approach. This is, of course, a continuum.

3. Some people, for whatever reason, find themselves at the extremes of this continuum—including some who find themselves at the extreme end of the logic-based pole.

4. These people can find it difficult to interact with those who occupy a more moderate position on the continuum, for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity or being dickheads.

Are you sure than your narrative of how these people work isn't merely a rationalization (hah) that allows you to dismiss them as insecure and passive-aggressive?
posted by ixohoxi at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2010

Ah, this was actually a pretty enjoyable read for me. So many of the occurrences in this story have very clear analogues in my own teen years—and maybe that's partially because I, like Illysa, grew up with a brilliant, mentally ill father, or because I've never really been typically feminine, or because I can overthink a plate of beans with the best of 'em. Probably some combination thereof. In any case, to say this story's about "a woman whose hyperrationality got in the way of her happiness" is to reduce it too far (although that hook did get me to click through to read it). I think this is more of a composition on a theme re: poses and delusions, specifically exploring which ones are adaptive, and to what extent, and under what set of circumstances—as well as what happens when such beliefs' consequences are followed ad absurdum, e.g., when adaptive compartmentalization is taken out of the picture in the name of Truth and Authenticity and Self-Consistency. I would guess that Aaronson probably has seen a lot of seemingly maladaptive behavior on the part of both his peers (at the time of this story's writing) and his students (in the years since). It's almost inescapable if you spend very long around college students and/or precocious teens, and the urge to catalog and categorize and analyze this behavior can be a strong one.

What's interesting to me is the trajectory Illysa takes as she navigates a cascade of delusions. In short, as Hardcore Poser put it so well early on in this thread, this story is about an overthinker who becomes an underthinker—or maybe someone who wants to believe she's an overthinker choosing to believe she's an underthinker. There are whole layers of overthinking to this. Illysa starts off with a delusion of hyperrationality—which reads almost like autism to me now, but which, if I'm being honest, kind of reminds me of myself, age 16 to 19, a period during which many of my idle moments were preoccupied by questions of what makes someone "intelligent," how that intelligence is manifested, and who "got it" re: a variety of "basic truths" I'd discovered (e.g. "correlation != causation," etc.). Illysa's luckily been endowed with the requisite intelligence to support her delusion—she's pretty good at following a plausible chain of logic to its conclusion—else this particular imago wouldn't have held up very long (or would've been almost too painful to read, like the equivalent of self-conscious would-be "nerds" without the intelligence or imagination to think for themselves sitting around quoting lines from Firefly or Monty Python, playing at "smartness").

When we first meet her, Illysa's intent on stating the Truth as She Sees It, to the detriment of almost all interpersonal relationships. (She gives Tracy a bye on strict "rationality" 'cause Tracy's equally good at establishing a chain of justifications for her actions, and admirably good at compartmentalizing.) I've absolutely been there. The worst time to have a public blog is when you're 19 and in the throes of a "telling the truth, consequences be damned" phase...

But yeah—Aaronson actually has the time frame completely right, I think. At least in my experience, the summer after my sophomore year of high school—age 16—was when I went off to a summer program for smart kids and got a three-week primer on academic discourse and "intelligent" modes of thought. It really was all a matter of discourse and rhetoric, but I was 16; these things suddenly struck me as a New Truth, an Awakening, a set of Important Connections! (Heh. I was also reading a lot of 19th-century literature then, and of course, I'd met a boy...so I was seeing everything through the high gloss of hormones—which surely Illysa has, too, with those paraboloid breasts. Which, by the way, strikes me as exactly the kind of ridiculous comparison I would've scribbled in one of my math notebooks at age 16.) What I was really taking part in, though, was the beginning of a "tracking system" of sorts that sees those who "get it" pulled into a series of summer programs for smart kids, where they master increasingly specialized bits of discourse, until they matriculate to places like MIT.

The thing about a lot of really intelligent people, especially those who are good enough at math to make it to a place like MIT, is that they're often great at pattern recognition. But outside of math and science, that often leads them into whirlpools and eddies of thought, in which beliefs are taken to their seemingly logical conclusions along a path of tenuous hops, stone to stone, across the rapids. Enter A Beautiful Mind: The gap between pattern recognition and schizophrenia is only a matter of degree. (Reminds me of a phrase I scribbled in one of my high-school notebooks: "Too little of teh [sic] inhibitory neuronal stuff happenin'...)

So that's the setup here for Illysa—she's got a natural gift for pattern recognition, along with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, but she's also a teenager, so she can't see that her preoccupation re: exposing others' supposed delusions is itself a pose, a husk. What she does get, dimly, through a scanner darkly, is that the hyperrationality pose isn't working for her, so she decides to subvert herself—she wants to embrace belief. She doesn't even know that belief is even possible to someone with, as my fiancé would describe it, a "brain problem" like hers, but she wants to try. So she says yes to the jock. She wills herself to use her pattern-recognition faculties and imagination to find the supernatural in everyday life. She suspends disbelief, and imagines her jock boyfriend to have unseen depths—and he responds positively to the delusion. (As she discovers, imagination can be a powerful force for good in relationships...) She reads about dream transference and out-of-body experiences and believes she sees UFOs and meets her boyfriend in her dreams—it's the ridiculously rational person's approach to the irrational. Man, have I ever been there—c.f. my collection of Richard Bach books, which I used to lend to boys I dated.

Proper spelling, precise grammar, a teetotaling avoidance of mind-altering substances—all are refuges, of a sort, walls erected to protect the supposed bastion of one's mind. "I will not," therefore I am. Giving in, loosening up...these are unthinkable things to a certain sort of teenager, especially one who's been subject to a lot of unpredictability in her young life. Adaptive compartmentalization, too, is seen as hypocrisy by this sort of teenager—so if you're going to let go, if you're going to debauch yourself, you'd best go all out. There's actually a very Siddharthan sort of logic to that—best to have all the experiences, because they're all learning experiences. And all delusions.

In any case, the petering out into 133tsp34k at the story's end could plausibly be read in at least a couple of different ways, including as evidence of Illysa's incipient schizophrenia (she's, again, the right age), or as simply as a deliberately antipoetic ad absurdum conclusion on the part of the author. I can tell you, though, that it's fully possible for even someone as otherwise intelligent as Illysa supposedly is to delude herself into writing (and thinking) in a protracted series of LOLs and OMGs and deranged musings on the topics of boys and friends; my middle-school notebooks are a testament to that.

All told, I thought it was a very smart bit of writing, with a lot more depth than has been addressed by most commenters—and the little "look how smart I am" puns didn't detract from that one whit, because they fit that character completely. Thanks for posting this, Obscure Reference.
posted by limeonaire at 10:08 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aaronson's blog is fantastic!

And funny:

“Rabbit Hole” is a rehash of the 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?”; apparently the new version is longer and includes more crackpots, but the basic howlers are the same. (Woit’s summary: “entanglement=we are all connected, superposition=anything you want to be true is true.”)

I suppose I’ll eventually have to don a fake mustache, clothespin my nose, and go endure this movie, since people often bring it up when I tell them what I do for a living:

ME: …so, at least in the black-box model that we can analyze, my result implies that the quantum speedup for breaking cryptographic hash functions is only a polynomial one, as opposed to the exponential speedup of Shor’s factoring algorithm.

PERSON AT COCKTAIL PARTY: How interesting! It’s just like they were saying in the movie: reality is merely a construct of our minds.

But if I do jump down the Rabbit Hole, my worry is that I won’t make it through:

“Sir, if you don’t stop causing a disturbance, we’ll have to escort you out of the movie theater…”


“Alright, come with us, sir.”


Not to mention looking like the best shot I'll ever get to understand, within the limitations of my ability, what's going on with P and NP in mathematics right now.

Thank you, Obscure Reference and panda (et al).
posted by jamjam at 10:47 AM on July 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

(but considering that the author was 20 when he wrote it, and that he's not primarily a writer, that's forgivable).

UGH!!! I wish this had been made clear in the post. I think it would have eliminated a bunch of comments about how terrible this story is.

If you post with this introduction:

On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality A short story by M.I.T. faculty member Scott Aaronson about a woman whose rationality got in the way of her happiness.

It sounds like the author wrote this recently, as a current faculty member.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:59 AM on July 25, 2010

Speaking of being a dick, let me interject on a question you asked someone else:

One notable way they differ is that some people take a more intuitive, emotion-based approach, whereas some people take a more logical, intellect-based approach. This is, of course, a continuum.

One of the things I personally found irritating about the story is that it is sets up a false dichotomy between rationality an emotion --- that is it seems to imply that if one is capable of rational thought, if one is the kind of person who reflexively and instinctively relies on logic as one's go-to method of consciously processing the world, one is therefore not subject to and driven by emotion. That to find emotional satisfaction of any sort one must either partially --- by "compartmentalizing" ---- or fully give into irrationality, the descent into babble.

I don't think people work like that, and I don't think science does, either. Take, for example, the discussions of moral reasoning in this episode of Radio Lab or the discussion of a life without testosterone in this episode of This American Life --- they help show us the ways in which emotions are how we assign meaning. Desire itself --- including the desire to solve puzzles --- has an ineluctable, irrational element. We may be able to suss out logical reasons for such a desire, but it is not the conscious thought of such logical reasons that moves us to act; it is the desire itself.

What comes across as smug and un-aware about the story is the apparent lack of recognition of this --- the sort of "let me descend for the moment and try and figure out how your pretty little minds work." You're right in here with us, buddy.

This doesn't change the fact that some people are smarter than others, or that high level abstract reasoning is quite a useful skill to have and one in which many people are sadly deficient, and worthy of admiration. There are airheads and flakes in this world, and it's a valiant cause to make sure that they're not the ones making decisions about the utility of vaccination.

But being good at people is not a lesser skill than being good at abstract reasoning --- in a way it's some of the most complex, high-level thinking that we do, that "Ah, but does he know that I know that he knows what she did?" And it's one we generally rely on our instinctive, emotional side to figure out ---- "That was really weird just now, when he came over and handed her a drink. I think he does know." Indeed, the best literature is often really good at portraying just such shifting layers of intuition --- this scene in Anna Karenina is perhaps the best example.
posted by Diablevert at 11:31 AM on July 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

LOL! Reading this was a little bit (ok, totally) like reading my LiveJournal from high school. SO glad I'm not a teenager anymore, dang.
posted by little light-giver at 1:18 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the things I personally found irritating about the story is that it is sets up a false dichotomy between rationality and emotion... I don't think people work like that, and I don't think science does, either.

But teenagers (and those just out of their teens) often do. That's precisely what strikes me as most authentic about this story; it was written about teens by a just-past-teen-ager. You're so right about the importance of intuition and complex social thinking; but those pathways aren't fully developed in most people until they're in their midtwenties!
posted by limeonaire at 1:53 PM on July 25, 2010

Speaking of being a dick

I assume that you were (jokingly) calling yourself a dick, and not me. (I don't think you were being a dick. Feel free to respond to any of my comments, whoever they're addressed to.)

One of the things I personally found irritating about the story is that it is sets up a false dichotomy between rationality an emotion --- that is it seems to imply that if one is capable of rational thought, if one is the kind of person who reflexively and instinctively relies on logic as one's go-to method of consciously processing the world, one is therefore not subject to and driven by emotion. That to find emotional satisfaction of any sort one must either partially --- by "compartmentalizing" ---- or fully give into irrationality, the descent into babble.

Whoa, whoa—don't confuse my arguments for those in the story. I didn't see that implication in the story—but as I said, I don't know what the point of the story is. I'm not defending it; I'm speaking for myself.

I didn't claim that anyone is devoid of emotion, or that this would be a desirable state of affairs. I gladly acknowledge that my love of sciencey, logicky things is driven by passion.

Here's what I said:

Human beings differ in the way the way they approach the problem of understanding reality.

Everyone has emotions—and there's not a thing wrong with that—but people have different styles of integrating those emotions with their memories, experiences, beliefs, decision-making processes, and all the other stuff in their brains. That's all I'm really saying.

And when it comes to the specific problem of understanding reality (i.e., making sense of the material universe around us), people vary in their approach.

Some people are more inclined to trust evidence and logical argument than they are to trust gut feeling, or a friend's testimony, or an emotional appeal.

(In place of the word "trust", substitute "value", "understand", etc.)

Some people are the opposite way.

That's the continuum I'm talking about. Most people are somewhere in the middle. A few live on the ends. It says nothing about whether people have emotions (of course they do). It's about whether they consider raw, unfiltered emotion, that hasn't been subjected to the test of logical scrutiny, to be a legitimate and reliable source of knowledge about external reality.

At one extreme of the continuum, there are people who are openly hostile to reason—who are glad to accept whatever their emotions tell them as Truth, period, end of discussion. There's a bumper sticker that says "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!". That's an explicitly anti-rational argument.

Somewhere on the same end of the continuum are people who "know" that astrology and homeopathy work, despite mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary. They see the evidence; they acknowledge it—they just don't care about it. It just doesn't carry much weight to them. They may even cluck their tongues at you for trying to pollute their pure, glorious Intuition with your filthy logic. (I personally find this kind of thinking to be morally and intellectually repugnant, but you needn't attach any value to it to understand the dichotomy I'm trying to illustrate.)

At the other extreme, there are those who are obsessed with skepticism and logical analysis to a point that some consider obsessive. (Some, like our hypothetical astrology buffs and the guy with the bumper sticker, even consider it offensive.)

(I obviously understand myself as a member of this end of the continuum. Perhaps you think I'm being more charitable in describing myself than I am the other. You're probably right. Sorry; I'm human. The take-home point isn't the particular values that I assign to the continuum, but what kind of continuum I'm talking about.)
posted by ixohoxi at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2010

I assume that you were (jokingly) calling yourself a dick, and not me.


Whoa, whoa—don't confuse my arguments for those in the story.

I do not, and I screwed up if it came across so. When you originally posted your reasoning chain, it was in response to noahhs’ comment which interpreted the actions of the girl in the story strictly through the lens of emotional motivation. You seemed either confused by why someone would apply such a lens, or piqued that someone would choose to apply such a lens, and reject the assumption of the story that it is possible to have an entirely, perhaps excessively, rational, logic reliant mind. What I was attempting to do was to pivot off your remark to expand upon why one might choose to interpret the character’s actions emotionally, or at least why one might think it irritating that the story attempts to enforce that dichotomy.

I agree with you that some people are more consciously reliant on logic than others, and that there’s a spectrum among humans regarding how much they favor that method of thought, from Vulcans to Valley Girls.

What irritated me about the story --- which at this point I’m beginning to feel sorry for, it’s not so weighty a matter that it deserves this load of ponderous opprobrium --- was that I don’t think it’s really possible for any human to have an entirely rational mind. We’ve all a bit Kirk in us as well, inasmuch as we are human at all. Granted, the story is a satire, its characters meant to be exaggerated types, not realist portraits. But the larger interest of the story --- to explore through comic hyperbole the costs and benefits of giving into irrationality --- does suggest a willingness to divide people up in this way (the rational v. the irrational). After all, it’s a bit of a horror tale, isn’t it? A descent into madness? Her skill with and reliance on logic alienates her from her fellow humans --- but the moment she relaxes that grip, she loses her ability to reason at all, and with it, gradually, her intelligence. Other characters in the story can “compartmentalize” but the main character cannot, precisely because her use of logic to interpret the world is the core of her self. To give up on logic, even the least little bit, is to lose the self. It seems to me, too, that the author thinks it a poor trade --- emotional connection at the cost of the discerning intelligence which is what separates one from other people in the first place. (Indeed, some of his other writings cited within this thread might seem to support that view.) In my view that’s a take that’s a little bit condescending and immature --- none of us can entirely escape irrationality, and believing that we can often blinds us to our own folly, and helps us excuse to ourselves jerkish behavior. None of which is to say, of course, that there aren’t flakes in the world, some of them dangerous.

And that’s about all the bullshitting on this poor little short story I feel comfortable indulging in. Poor Mr. Aaronson, I’m sure there were more productive uses of my time then going after what turns out to be his juvenilia with a scalpel. ‘Course maybe he feels I never managed to draw any blood in the first place, and all’s well.
posted by Diablevert at 2:42 PM on July 26, 2010

You people are all idiots. Way to completely miss the point. "Well, that went completely over my head, but he was discussing breasts! so he must be a creeper."

I won't defend the writing style; it was hard to get through all that. But the story was about these so-called levels of rationality, not about Aaronson's suspected creepiness. But don't let that stop you from enjoying your spot on the MeFi "Me Too!" brigade.

My girlfriend recently asked me if I thought less of her, or thought she was crazy, because she believed in a god (cue the harpies descending on me for being a bad boyfriend or whatever, but I assure you, I did nothing to prompt this question). I explained to her that while I, in my own logical mind, had come to the conclusion that god either doesn't exist or if he does humans are utterly beneath his notice (my type-0 conclusion), I understood the basis of religious belief in the human mind (a type-1 understanding). For me, it marks the difference between logical and rational; while it's not logical to believe in a god (according to the information available to me), it's still entirely rational to believe in a higher power. Our brains are wired that way, for one. Or rather, the idea of god takes advantage of our brain's wiring to comfort us apes, to provide an Alpha figure outside the tribe to prevent excessive contention for primate primacy/alpha-male status, and to provide a blanket explanation for things we can't yet know and would be wasting our time (most of us, anyway) trying to solve with the paltry equipment we're born with (meaning our brains)/to (meaning current technology).

So what is logical (or hyperlogical) is not necessarily rational (or hyperrational, as the protagonist describes herself). Logic is "A and B, therefore C" but rationality is mired (or perhaps "embedded") in the way the brain works. And that means understanding and acknowledging all the cognitive shortcuts, the biases, the fallacies, that are in place in the mind. And understanding why they're there (hint: it's not possible to be 100% objective, 100% truthful, 100% honest; even logical systems have to start by declaring certain axioms, and the results are usually different when different axioms are chosen). The brain is set up to get us through life as effectively as possible (in the short-term) by avoiding contradictions, paradoxes, and self-diminishing information (see: cognitive dissonance). It's not designed as a logical proposition evaluator. It's not devised as an objective-truth engine.

So what Aaronson has done here is create a character who perceives (with her flawed brain) that the mind is exactly these things it's not: that it is up to her to understand everything around her from first principles and evaluate everything "objectively." For those not reading the essay, he sets her up as an attractive female so that it's plausible, despite her personality and standoffish nature, that she be regularly propositioned for dates (since one way he wants to evaluate this mental structure is through relationships with the opposite sex). It's facile, but the point of the story is not realism. It's to explore the differences between the types. Note that a crucial point in the story is when Ilyssa has to engage in a type-2 process to deceive not herself this time, but her sister. But for those hating the ending, maybe you missed something else. Nowhere does Aaronson say that this is what type-1+ thinking has to be like. It is his character's conclusion, thanks to her short-sighted hyperlogical viewpoint. "If type-0 is total and complete 'truth-telling' and fidelity to the 'real' universe [note the fallacy of there being single, unifying, objective truth in the first place; there are objective truths—science is a collection of such—but there is no single overriding objective truth, i.e., God, from which all other objective truths (physical, psychological, metaphysical) spring], then type-1 must be complete and utter self-delusion." This simply isn't true. Though, since this essay is meant as a class exercise, Aaronson's not going to do all the work (even if you think he's telling-not-showing). He wants the student (hopefully less lazy than the average MeFite) to evaluate their own type-0 vs. type-1 propositions (as he is on the CS faculty, and several of you have complained about this sort of hyperlogicality in freshman CS students). I'm sure it's also meant to illustrate the difference between the algorithmic (logical) way computers work vs. the heuristic (rational) way minds work. In that context, what *theoretical* computer science student (let's face it, many of them are thinking about how to design AIs) is going to follow this model to design their AI? The difference between the mind and a computer is more subtle than that, which one must understand if they are to work on bridging the gap with any success.

Not that it matters; you'll probably read the first line of this comment, decide I'm "with" Aaronson (and agin y'all and your massive self-congratulatory groupthink wankfest of "Who Can Be the Most Outraged") and reply to that, ignoring (as you did with the essay) the actual content. But you know, way to go you. You're fighting for gender equality in a way that matters not at all, and yet still manages to make you feel good. That's a type-1 (or even type-2) success, you should be proud!
posted by Eideteker at 6:06 AM on July 28, 2010

You know, this thread got a bit thematiclly fractal.
posted by Diablevert at 4:43 PM on July 28, 2010

You people are all idiots. Way to completely miss the point. "Well, that went completely over my head, but he was discussing breasts! so he must be a creeper."

I won't defend the writing style; it was hard to get through all that.

Yeah, Eideteker, I dunno if you read all the comments, but for a good number of us, the poor writing style WAS the point. We could not get through the essay because the writing was just tedious/bad/what-have-you. Some of us don't know if he's a creep or not; we don't care--we never bothered to find out. If something is poorly written we'll dismiss it after a paragraph or two.

So yes, maybe some of us "missed the point", but there needs to be something said for execution of an idea, right? Please don't call us idiots for not bothering to see how the story reflects levels of rationality or whatever. Or maybe you are just talking about the people saying he sounds like a creep...but since you addressed "all" of us, I thought I ought to respond.

Again, this post really needed a better intro to point out why the story should be of interest. Like "written by a 20 year old about the levels of rationality" or something like it at the intro.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:23 AM on July 29, 2010

I've only had time to read about a dozen of Aaronson's blog entries, but I feel bound to report to you all (my fellow poster children) that they are incredibly good.

He is so lively; he knows so much at such a deep level and he wields it all so effortlessly; he is so good-natured and fun.

I'm ready for him to be declared an International Treasure of Humanity, or something-- with all the restrictions that may imply.

('I'm sorry, Professor Aaronson, we can't honor your ticket for this flight. Surely you realize that an ITH is not permitted activities as risky as flying. I've arranged passage to London for you on the QE2, and that should allow you to attend the last two days of the conference. Bon Voyage!')
posted by jamjam at 5:05 PM on August 13, 2010

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