On pretending to be Wise

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (sentience@pobox.com)
Date: Wed Aug 30 2006 - 23:08:54 MDT

I do not fit the stereotype of the Wise. I am not Gandalf, Ged, or
Gandhi. I do not sit amidst my quiet garden, staring deeply into the
truths engraved in a flower or a drop of dew; speaking courteously to
all who come before me, and answering them gently regardless of how they
speak to me.

If I tried to look Wise, and succeeded, I would receive more respect
from my fellows. But there would be a price, one I will not pay.

To pretend to be Wise means that you must always appear to give people
the benefit of the doubt, and pretend to believe the best of them. Thus
people will admire you for your innocence and courtesy. But this is not
always true; and that which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

To pretend to be Wise, you must always pretend that both sides have
merit, and solemnly refuse to judge between them. For if you took one
side or another, why then, you would no longer be one of the aloof Wise,
but merely another partisan, on a level with all the other mere
bickerers. As one of the Wise, you are omnipotent on the condition that
you never exercise your power. Otherwise people would start thinking
that you were no better than they; and they would no longer hold you in awe.

Oftimes it is greatly convenient, to pretend to be Wise. When any
conflict breaks out, you can sternly chide both sides, saying: "You are
equally at fault; you must learn to see each other's viewpoints. I am
older and more mature, and I say to you: stop this pointless bickering,
children, for you begin to annoy me. Ponder well the wisdom of having
everyone get along!" You do not need to examine the dispute, nor wonder
if perhaps one side does have more merit than the other. You need not
judge between two sides, and risk having your judgment turn out to be
embarassingly wrong, or risk having your judgment questioned as though
you were only another ordinary mortal. Indeed you must not ask
questions, you must not judge; for if you take sides, you will at once
lose your reputation for being Wise, which requires that you stand
forever above the fray.

But truth is not handed out in equal parts before the start of a dispute.

And I am not one of the Wise. Even if I wished to be, it is not within
my nature. I watch for logical flaws with falcon's eye; when I see an
opening I strike like a snake; I do not sheathe my claws or blunt my
teeth; this is my nature. Also in my nature is that I do not hesitate
to place my reputation in jeopardy to aid the side I believe is right.
Even if it makes me seem but an ordinary mortal, no better than any
other in the fray. The respect I have earned, I have earned by other
ways than by appearing gravely solemn; and respect has no purpose but
what it can accomplish. Respect is not to be hoarded, but spent. Even
when those pretending to be Wise chide me, saying: "Stop this pointless
bickering, child!" - yet I will not pretend to neutrality, nor rise
above the fray.

For not all conflicts are balanced; indeed an exactly balanced conflict
is very rare. Sometimes - indeed often - I have struck out against both
sides in a dispute, saying: "You are both wrong; here is the third
way." But never have I told both sides of a dispute: "It doesn't
matter who started it, just end it." This is the path of convenience to
yourself, and it comes at a cost to others; it is selfish. There are
aggressors and aggressed, in wars. When some small nation is invaded by
another, or is provoked endlessly, or when one nation provokes another
and that other responds disproportionately; then it may prove convenient
indeed to the Great Powers, to pretend that all violence is equally
wrong and equally the fault of all sides, and selfishly seek a truce for
this year, this election. The Great Powers have no need to take sides,
when they can more easily tell the two edges of the gaping wound: "Oh,
just stop fighting, you foolish children!" Ignoring the rottenness
inside, the festering horror, and perhaps the true evil... but that is
pragmatism to a Great Power, which only wishes that the boat should go
unrocked, and does not truly care for the health of lesser nations.

And so too with those who pretend to be Wise: who pretend that there is
no aggrieved, that there is no long-term problem to be addressed, that
no side is ever in the right nor another in the wrong; that there are no
causes for conflicts, only fools who are not Wise and who will
spontaneously strike out at each other for no reason. It only takes one
to start a war. But the Wise cannot acknowledge this in any particular
case, for then they would be taking sides, and they would not be above
the fray, merely another combatant. They would lose the awe, in which
the Wise are held, and which they most earnestly desire.

I do not say that the Wise do this deliberately; but it is the
constraint that settles around them, the invisible chain that governs
their behavior. No doubt the Wise truly believe that the combatants are
but spoiled children; for if the Wise ceased to believe this, they would
have to act, and no longer appear Wise.

Have you not met them? the principal who cares not which child started
it? the Chair who is above the mere fray of corporate politics? the
Great Power who demands only an immediate truce? the priest who says
that all alike are sinners and all must repent? the boss who sternly
dictates that the conflict end now? have you not met them, the Wise?

To care about the public image of any virtue - whether that virtue be
charity, or wisdom, or rationality itself - is to limit your performance
of that virtue to what all others already understand of it. Therefore
those who would walk the Way of any virtue must first relinquish all
desire to appear virtuous before others, for this will limit and
constrain their understanding of the virtue. To earn the respect of
others is not hard, if you have a little talent, if that is the limit of
your desire. But to know what is true, or to do what is right - that is
far harder than convincing an audience of your wisdom. I am not Wise,
and I will not be Wise, and no one can be Wise if they would follow the
Way of rationality.

For the eye of the Wise is blinded, and it may sometimes miss the
gapingly obvious.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                          http://intelligence.org/
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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