On Things that are Awesome

by Eliezer Yudkowsky5 min read24th Mar 200925 comments


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This post, which touched on the allowedness of admiration, started me thinking about the nature of things that are awesome.

The first thing one does in such a situation is generate examples.  And my brain, asked to enumerate things that are awesome, said:  "Douglas Hofstadter, E. T. Jaynes, Greg Egan..."

Upon that initial output of my brain, I had many other thoughts:

(1)  My brain was able to list more than one thing that is awesome.  I am not going to dwell on this, because I think it needless to go around saying, "Douglas Hofstadter is awesome, but E. T. Jaynes is awesome too," as though to deliberately moderate or subtract from the admiration of Hofstadter.  The enjoyment of things that are awesome is an important part of life, and I don't think a healthy mind should have to hold back.  But the more things you know that are awesome, the more there is to enjoy—this doesn't mean you should artificially inflate your estimations of awesomeness, but it does mean that if you can think of only one awesome thing, you must be missing out on a lot of life.  And some awesome things, but not all, are compatible enough with yourself that you can draw upon the awesome—Hofstadter and Jaynes are both like this for me, but Greg Egan is not.  So even leaving aside certain mental health risks from having only one awesome thing—it is both enjoyable, and strengthening, to know of many things that are awesome.

(2)  I can think of many places where I disagree with statements emitted by Douglas Hofstadter and Greg Egan, and even one or two places where I would want to pencil in a correction to Jaynes (his interpretation of quantum mechanics being the most obvious).  In fact, when my brain says "Greg Egan" it is really referring to two novels, Permutation City and Quarantine, which overshadow all his other works in my book.  And when my brain says "Hofstadter" it is referring to Gödel, Escher, Bach with a small side order of some essays in Metamagical Themas.  For most people their truly awesome work is usually only a slice of their total output, from some particular years (I find that scary as hell, by the way).

(3)  Once you realize that you're only admiring someone's peak work, you also realize that the work is not the person:  I don't actually know Hofstadter, or Greg Egan, or E. T. Jaynes.  I have no idea what they are (were) like in their personal lives, or whether their daily deeds had any trace of the awesome that is in their books.  If you start thinking that a person is supposed to be as universally and consistently awesome as their best work, so that every word from their lips is supposed to be as good as the best book they ever wrote, that's probably some kind of failure mode.  This is not to try to moderate or diminish the awesomeness: for their best work is that awesome, and so there must have been a moment of their life, a time-slice out of their worldline, which was also that awesome.  But what the symbol "Douglas Hofstadter" stands for, in my mind, is not all his works, or all his life.

(4)  This made me realize a strange thing:  Whenever someone compliments "Eliezer Yudkowsky", they are really complimenting "Eliezer Yudkowsky's writing" or "Eliezer Yudkowsky's best writing that stands out most in my mind".  People who met me in person were often shocked at how much my in-person impression departed from the picture they had in their minds.  I think this mostly had to do with imagining me as being the sort of actor who would be chosen to play me in the movie version of my life—they imagined way too much dignity.  That forms a large part of the reason why I occasionally toss in the deliberate anime reference, which does seem to have fixed the divergence a bit.  And these days I have videos of myself online.  But then the inside of my head is something different again.  It's an odd thought to realize that everyone else who uses the symbol 'Eliezer Yudkowsky' uses it to refer to a quite different thing than you do.

(5)  What chiefly conveys to me the experience of the awesome is to see someone—pardon me, see someone's work —that is way above me.  My most recent experience of the awesome was reading the third book in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, and realizing that although I want to write with that kind of emotional depth, I can't, and may never be able to in this world.  I looked back at all my own tries in (unpublished) fiction, and it paled to grey by comparison.  It was the same way with reading Hofstadter the first time, and thinking that I could never, ever write as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach; or reading Permutation City, and seeing how far above me Greg Egan was as an idea-based science fiction writer.  And it would have been the same way with Jaynes, if that time I hadn't been thinking to myself, "No, I must become this good."  This is also something of a reply to Carl's comment that we may feel freer to admire those who do not compete with us—for me, the experience of the awesome is most strongly created by seeing someone (or rather their work) outdoing me overwhelmingly, in some place where I have tried my hand.  I don't think there's anything unhealthy about making this a basis of admiration.

(6)  My brain did not immediately enumerate all sorts of things that are too much a part of my background world to be salient:  Science, space travel, the human brain, and the universe are all awesome.  But the latter two are not human works, and you can't draw power from them the same way you can from a human work that is awesome and at least partly imitable.  And the virtue of narrowness seems to play an important part here: an awesome thing that can be viewed in one small chunk and understood in detail will seem more awesome than something big and diffusely awesome.  I would probably admire the space shuttle far more if I knew about it in more detail!

(7)  One of the reasons why I object to Adam Frank's attempt to salvage the concept of "sacredness" from religion, instead of reinventing it from scratch, is that e.g. being contaminated by religious experience makes you more likely to think that sacredness should only be about stars or something—those works that were once thought to be of God—whereas there is often a lot more awesomeness stored up in a human work that you know is human.  If I want to canonize something as sacred, I'll take Gödel, Escher, Bach over a mountain any day.


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25 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:26 PM
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Personally, the symbol "Douglas Hofstadter" in my mind stands for "the symbol "Douglas Hofstadter" in my mind".

i disagree with this. the symbol "X" may stand for "the symbol 'X' in my mind" when you are explicitly thinking "what does the symbol of X stand for in my brain" and you cleverly return "well, it is simply a symbol and i should recognize that and treat it as such."

but in the practical functioning of your mind, the symbol stands for much more than itself. if, when confronted with the input "X", your brain returned "the symbol X," that would be wholly useless (and possibly send the computational portion of your mind into a recursive loop). "X" must stand for a some concept outside of "X" for it to serve a purpose in your mind.

a symbol existing solely for the sake of itself with no attachments outside of itself is mentally useless.

a symbol existing solely for the sake of itself with no attachments outside of itself is mentally useless.

Professor Hofstadter writes books about mental symbols, recursive loops, and self-reference. That is to say, it was a joke.

in that case, apologies; i am not familiar with his work. though after this series of posts, i will certainly be reading G, E, B.

I've frequently thought that an ethics based around doing/praising those things that are "awesome" rather than those things that are "good" might work out well. (Of course, one might argue that that's basically what Objectivism is...)

[-][anonymous]9y 0

That vaguely reminds me of certain late 19th- and early 20th-century writers, such as Wilde, Nietzsche, and D'Annunzio.

It's interesting that you name both Jaynes and Hofstadter, since they represent diametrically opposed approaches to the unmentionable objective (I don't think Bayes' rule is ever mentioned in GEB).

Do Jaynes' awesome points come primarily from his book, or from his MaxEnt work?

We should compose a list of things deemed to be awesome by the LW empirical personspace cluster.

We should compose a list of things deemed to be awesome by the LW empirical personspace cluster.

I would support that, even if a non-official attempt. I've gotten so much out of recommendations from people here.

In fact, I think I read Godël, Escher, Bach only after I saw it mentioned in comments on Overcoming Bias. It had been on my list for years, but I never got around to it (I was a bit intimidated by the reviews that talked about the math), and I bought Judgement Under Uncertainty and Rational Choice in an Uncertain World because of recommendations from Eliezer. I admit I'm still intimidated by E.T. Jaynes and Judea Pearl...

Would love to know what others here think is awesome, including textbooks (I'm currently reading Molecular Biology of the Cell, 5th edition, by Alberts & al., and plan to read MITECS, the Feynman lectures on physics, and Tortora's Principles of anatomy and physiology next)

Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World by Robert Nozick is awesome.

[-][anonymous]13y 4

(4) This made me realize a strange thing: Whenever someone compliments "Eliezer Yudkowsky", they are really complimenting "Eliezer Yudkowsky's writing" or "Eliezer Yudkowsky's best writing that stands out most in my mind".

Yeah, he used to be a brilliant AI researcher, and now he's an annoyingly preachy blogger! Haw haw!

But seriously: regression to the mean?

It's funny - I also think Greg Egan is awesome, but I think Incandescence overshadows Permutation City - to the point of transforming the previous one into solipsistic wankery by comparison.

Einstein, Turing, Von Neumann, Knuth, de Bruijn are awesome. Melanie Mitchell and Cosma Shalizi are awesome. Bob K. Meyer is awesome.

Interesting. I favor Diaspora over all the rest combined.

Egan's best ideas are scattered pretty evenly throughout his works, but there is a clear difference in quality of the works themselves. Curiously, no one seems to agree on which are best, which suggests that people value very different aspects of his writing.

Curiously, no one seems to agree on which are best

I'll say. My favorite was Distress, and I was hugely disappointed by Indcandesence.

What are your thoughts regarding his short stories?

I find it reassuring sometimes to look at other people's accomplishments, especially those in areas where I'll probably never push my brain to its full potential, which probably wouldn't meet their potential anyway. (Composing music is an example.) It's reassuring to look away from everyday life, where everyday people seem to spend so much of their time just surviving and not really outputting anything, and see that it IS possible to output something incredible. A beautiful piece of music can be enjoyable in itself, but it's also an inspiration to me to produce something equally amazing in another area.

there is often a lot more awesomeness stored up in a human work that you know is human.

If you like inspiring old philosophy, I'm reminded of Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man:

Ignorant of how to yield to the angels and unable to endure the second places, let us compete with them in dignity and glory. When we have willed it, we shall be not at all below them

An interesting correlated effect of perceiving someone as awesome is the "we're not worthy" starstruck reaction to meeting the object of your admiration in person. And as Eliezer mentions, you often find reality diverges from the perception that you had. I noticed that a number of bloggers that attended the SXSW conference expressed surprise at the amount of cognitive dissonance that they encountered both in meeting other bloggers whose work they admired, and when admirers of theirs exhibited starstruck behaviors.

I find that in the rare instance where I meet somebody whose work I admire in person, I find myself deliberately suppressing any untoward fanboyish behaviors. I do believe in expressing honest and heartfelt admiration, but gushing and fawning are too much. Maybe I need to devise some sort of metric to calibrate the appropriate expression of admiration... :)

For most people their truly awesome work is usually only a slice of their total output, from some particular years (I find that scary as hell, by the way).

Has anyone any good possible explanations for this phenomenon?

Surely the explanation is just that things which are unusually good are unusual. You wouldn't expect someone to write a book as good as GEB every time they wrote a book, just as you wouldn't expect any given book to be as good as GEB (although I personally got more out of Le Ton Beau de Marot...)

The best stuff, from the top end of the bell curve, will have lots of factors going for it:

  • very motivated author
  • author was in the right place at the right time
  • author is very talented
  • this is unusually good work for this author

The general effect is called "regression toward the mean" .

Curiously, no one seems to agree on which are best, which suggests that people value very different aspects of his writing.

Shouldn't we then consider that the awesomeness mean to which authors (broadly) regress reflects less their talent/circumstances and more our own subjective experience?

Much of it is selection bias. Godel published very little and his two most significant results are 15 years apart. Kafka is all brilliant, all the time. In fact, with great writers who had long careers you often find their very best work scattered over decades.

Sometimes it's just a freak brilliant moment. I had an experience like this reading A Clockwork Orange and having it just blow my head off, then reading as much other Anthony Burgess as I could. The results were ... disappointing. (All his other novels suck. All of them. I looked.)

Mircea Eliade has some interesting thoughts about the concept of sacred and profane and how religion is about revealing the sacred usually camouflaged within profane things. So "sacredness" is independent of religion and the later is just an activity meant to reveal the former.