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A list capturing all background knowledge you might ever need for LW.

Updated: 2010-10-10

  • F = Free
  • E = Easy (adequate for a low educational background)

This list has two purposes. One is to enable people that lack a basic formal education to read and understand the LessWrong Sequences. Secondly, it is meant as a list of useful resources for all people to help to better understand what is being discussed on LessWrong and to enable you to actively participate.

Do not flinch, most of LessWrong can be read and understood by people with a previous level of education less than secondary school. And even if you lack the most basic education, if you start with Khan Academy followed by BetterExplained then with the help of Google and Wikipedia you should be able to reach a level of education that allows you to start reading the LessWrong Sequences.

Nevertheless, before you start off you might read the Twelve Virtues of Rationality FE. Not only is scholarship just one virtue but you'll also be given a list of important fields of knowledge that anyone who takes LessWrong seriously should study:

It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory.



Math is fundamental, not just for LessWrong. But especially Bayes’ Theorem is essential to understand the reasoning underlying most of the writings on LW.



Decision theory:
It is precisely the notion that Nature does not care about our algorithm, which frees us up to pursue the winning Way - without attachment to any particular ritual of cognition, apart from our belief that it wins. Every rule is up for grabs, except the rule of winning. — Eliezer Yudkowsky
Remember that any heuristic is bound to certain circumstances. If you want X from agent Y and the rule is that Y only gives you X if you are a devoted irrationalist then ¬irrational. Under certain circumstances what is irrational may be rational and what is rational may be irrational. Paul K. Feyerabend said: "All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’."

Game Theory


Programming knowledge is not mandatory for LessWrong but you should however be able to interpret the most basic pseudo code as you will come across various snippets of code in discussions and top-level posts outside of the main sequences.




Computer sciences  (General Introduction):

One of the fundamental premises on LessWrong is  that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process  and that we therefore should be able to  reverse engineer the human brain  as it is fundamentally computable. That is, intelligence and consciousness are substrate independent.

Machine Learning:

Not essential but an valuable addition for anyone who's more than superficially interested in AI and machine learning.

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination. — Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995.
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. — Wittgenstein
General Education:


Not essential but a good preliminary to reading LessWrong and in some cases mandatory to be able to make valuable contributions in the comments. Many of the concepts in the following works are often mentioned on LessWrong or the subject of frequent discussions.

Key Concepts:

Below a roundup of concepts and other fields of knowledge you should at least have a rough grasp of to be able to follow some subsequent discussions in the comments on LessWrong.

Key Resources (News and otherwise)  F:
Relevant Fiction:


This list is a work in progress. I will try to constantly update and refine it.

Also thanks to  cousin_it for the idea. I had to turn the original comment on his post into my own top-level post because I got the error that my comment was too long.

If you've anything to add or correct, please comment below and I'll update the list accordingly.

New Comment
33 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:50 AM

Although I think this is a great list of books to have on LW, is anyone else vaguely disturbed by this idea that you can't contribute meaningfully unless you know about all of these topics? Isn't LW supposed to be about raising the sanity waterline by making rationality more accessible? Posts like this, while useful to people already interested in LW, probably sound extremely off-putting to new users.

If you start with ... followed by ... then with the help of ... you should be able to ... that allows you to start reading the LessWrong Sequences.

Yes. Even understanding that LW addresses high-level topics and there's a lot of useful background information out there, I scoffed at the above sentence. "Maybe, someday, if you work really hard, you'll be able to participate at a baseline level."

"you should read and memorize ..." is right up there too. This brings to mind the picture of a child in elementary school standing at the front of the class reciting their lessons.

Newcomers to LW aren't kids. We are mostly (and I feel I can still say "we") intelligent grownups with lives outside the internet. As Interpolate describes, a list of useful resources to help understand the topics on LW is helpful. A list of required homework before you're considered qualified to post on an internet forum is condescending.

See also why newbies don't read the sequences.

If I come on too strong, it's not because I'm offended or feel personally condescended to. I'm just trying to impress how drastically the tone hobbles the message.


Thank you, I updated the description according to your recommendations.

Not disturbed, just in disagreeance. A simple rewording of the post and title into something like "how to better understand Less Wrong" would stop it being potentially off-putting to new users.


Thanks, upvoted. I changed the title according to your suggestion.


Absolutely. I changed the tone accordingly.

It would be good if one could separate these lists into free online material and links to online bookstores. Also, it would be nice to list popular and semi-formal material separate from real rigorous stuff, or to add some annotations to that effect.

Regarding quantum theory, these are the best introductory online materials I've found:

Also, general relativity isn't really discussed here much, but still, here are some online materials I can recommend, so you can consider adding that to the list:


Also, it would be nice to list popular and semi-formal material separate from real rigorous stuff, or to add some annotations to that effect.

I marked each item if it is either free and or easy now.


Looks very good, added it all. Thanks!

As far as Python goes, the best resource for me while learning it was http://diveintopython.org/

This is great, thanks. Although I don't agree all of this is prerequisite for reading/participating/benefitting from Less Wrong, I'm sure it will useful for anyone autodidactically inclined, and I like how you've categorised and explained them according to how they pertain to topics discussed here.

I would add to the list: http://academicearth.org/ (similar to, but of a much higher quality than Khan Academy)


Thank you, I added your recommendation to the list.

Excellent post. Thank you.

I think this would be worth moving to the main LW.


If you think it is a good idea. Should I post it anew there or can one move it?

Also, if you're going to read only one book about linguistics, I'm not sure if The Language Instict is a good choice. It's very fun and informative, but Pinker does a very bad job of clarifying which claims are a matter of consensus, and which ones his own, at least somewhat controversial opinions. Also, linguistics is a wider field than you might conclude from the book, with lots of fascinating insight about all kinds of things that Pinker doesn't talk about.

For a good introduction to linguistics, I recommend R.L. Trask's Language: the Basics instead. It's much shorter, but definitely better as a primer.


Added it to a separate linguistics section.

Upvoted for dissing Pinker :) I love his books but use them more for reference mining than taking at face value.


While I understand where you're coming from, I was disappointed to not see much about how to better participate on LW. Some elucidation of the implicit norms of what kind of posts or comments are worthwhile could be useful to newcomers. I also expect to find this useful. It may be difficult to make such norms explicit though.

I'd be grateful if someone could write a code of conduct (I'll think about it too). I'm myself pretty uneducated. The OP is basically the culmination of what I found out I should learn about, besides reading LW itself. I thought it could come in handy for those that seek to educate themselves.

Nonetheless, this is a great idea. Upvoted.


  • If you are unsure if your contribution is valuable, seek feedback in the discussion area.
  • Keep your contributions relevant to the original post if commenting and the LW community as a whole.
  • LW is not a forum for chit-chat.
  • Content that is appropriate for LW...(well I have to think about this tomorrow)
  • Realize that most of the participants on LW are 1.) highly educated 2.) highly intelligent 3.) not neurotypical.

Just some quick ideas which may be ill-conceived as I myself seem to fail the norms quite often.

Perhaps the idea that we're trying to make Aumann agreement easy would work as an organizing principle. This means not being territorial about one's factual claims, and not adding emotional noise to disagreements.

Can we taboo neurotypical now and avoid a lot of trouble in the future?


Perhaps the idea that we're trying to make Aumann agreement easy would work as an organizing principle. This means not being territorial about one's factual claims, and not adding emotional noise to disagreements.

The original edit was titled "Prerequisites for understanding and participating on LW", in line with cousin_it's post. The aim is to guide people to relevant information.

Some elucidation of the implicit norms of what kind of posts or comments are worthwhile could be useful to newcomers.

Maybe you could write one?


Maybe you could write one?

I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that yet. I've only been active in LW for about a month and a half. By spending a lot of time here I feel like I've become better at complying with these norms, but don't think I have a clear enough perspective to explicitly write them out.

The not reading the sequences thing probably comes from there being several ways to use a list like this. People who are already familiar with most of the stuff can use it as a handy index to find that one thing they were looking for or the subject they wanted to refresh their skill on. People just browsing randomly can pick something that sounds interesting and go off reading that. People who don't know the stuff and figure they need to learn it look at the length of the list, do some quick estimate of the amount of text involved and go "goddamn fuck it".

It's a lot of stuff, it's immediately obvious it's a lot of stuff, and there are few clues to the relative importance of the bits. The layout is also topic-based, which is nice for the first two groups, but doesn't really help in figuring out what would be a good order in which to read the stuff when coming from zero familiarity.

I thought about something like an university curriculum, where you would have units like Background Reading 1, with a well-picked set of definition articles for common concepts and introductionary sequence posts, followed by Background Reading 2 and so on. These would be composed with the assumption that many people will read through Background Reading 1 and stop there, and the same will happen further in the chain, so better try to get at least some broad overview in early on.

The problem with this of course is that it would be a lot of extra work (someone'd have to decide on unit contents in addition to putting the index together), wouldn't even work with things that can't easily be chopped up into bits such as online textbooks, and it's not clear if it would be that much more useful than the current sink-or-swim style.

Colorblindness check: I'm not sure how many people would be affected, but your F and E wash out for some forms of colorblindness. I'm thinking about this as "you might care", not as "you've gotta do it".

Definitely some Vinge on the fiction list-- Marooned in Real Time introduced the idea of the Singularity, and leaves it as a Rorschach blot for the reader. A Fire Upon the Deep has somewhat about why you should be nervous about the Singularity.

Actually, there's quite a bit to learn from here and enjoy without the math. I might be better off if I knew more math, but meanwhile, I skip the equations and a lot of the more technical discussions.

To judge by my karma (steady upward creep, average somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 point per post, very few downvotes as far as I can tell), I'm participating adequately.

I'm guessing you meant "read math and science", not "eat math and science".

There's a comment or link with what looked like a very good description of how to approach math problems in general. Anyone remember it?

Thanks, but none of those seem to be it. The thing I remember is specifically about how to approach a math problem.


No idea what's wrong but formatting is failing on me right now. I had to fix a whole category and many spaces are gone. It also seems to add double letters on a few occasions.

If you find any errors, let me know. :-(


Hmm...something went wrong. When I hit submit there were already 4 comments?! It looks like I mistakenly published this post before it was finished. Please look at it again if you read it earlier, I'm not sure what you saw.

How about a list of recommended fiction? My background in science fiction and fantasy is more than sufficient, but the anime and manga references go right by me.


Great idea, I added a Relevant Fiction section at the bottom. Any suggestions appreciated.