Truth Discernment Can be a Super Power

When we think of super powers, we usually consider things like invisibility, super strength and the ability to fly. Technology is bringing us closer to the realization of these dreams (for examples see invisibility, strength, flying). But there is a super power that has existed for much longer, which we might call “truth discernment”. This is the ability to figure out what is likely to be true in hard, important, real world problems.

There are difficult questions like the blue eyes logic puzzle, which require strong thinking skills to solve. And then there are TRULY difficult questions, that require an extremely honed thinking process, like:

  • How can I make so much money in the next five years that I never have to work again?
  • Which job should I choose right now to maximize my average lifetime happiness?
  • Which charities help the world the most per thousand dollars donated to them?
  • What can I do to change our society into a significantly more ideal place?
  • What is the greatest threat to humanity as a species, and what can we do now to reduce this threat?

Notice that these important questions are somewhat ambiguous. They also can’t be addressed without gathering and combining information from many sources, and involve factors that are extremely hard to predict. And they can’t be solved unless you can do a reasonable job of estimating difficult to estimate quantities. They all require truly excellent thinking to tackle. Truth discernment becomes a super power when it leaves the realm of puzzles and enters the realm of extremely valuable real world questions.

At high levels, truth discernment ability is not just IQ, though surely is somewhat correlated with it. It is not just the ability to apply logic, though logic is an important component. It also requires certain habits of mind, like regularly asking yourself what the evidence is for your own beliefs. It requires using techniques, like thinking in terms of probabilities rather than thinking in black and white. It requires caring more about getting the right answer than about seeming right or believing what it is convenient psychologically to believe.

The exciting thing about truth discernment is that it is not just a genetic ability (though genetics is surely a contributing factor). It is an ability that we can improve a great deal if we take the time to hone our thinking. We can familiarize ourselves with the logical fallacies to the point where our brain notices them occurring in real-time. We can learn the cognitive biases so that we know the ways our brains are likely to fail us and can consciously correct for these failures. We can learn to prevent unhelpful emotions from derailing our logic too often. We can practice our reasoning by drilling in LSAT questions. And we can learn the methods of rationality, or at least read about another person using them.

Many comic book writers have realized that intelligence is a legitimate super power. Lex Luthor was superman’s nemesis despite being physically inferior to him in every capacity. He could still compete with superman only because of the power of his thinking. But it is not a very high level of intelligence, per se, that is so powerful. Being able to solve the hardest logic puzzles won’t automatically let you solve problems that matter. Truth discernment is the essential skill, the ability to figure out the likely answer to truth claims regarding important real world questions. Will taking this action bring me more happiness in the long-term than not taking this action? Will this regulation, if it passes, improve poverty? Will this business venture make large quantities of money? Is string theory an accurate description of reality?

Being able to accurately discern the truth can be a super power, and with study and practice, it is an ability that we can very substantially improve.

Influences: Eliezer Yudkowsky