Within the next month I will be enrolling in an(other) undergraduate university course. This being the case I must make a selection of both course and major. While I could make such decisions on impulsive unconscious preference satisfaction and guesswork on what subjects happen to provide the most value I could also take the opportunity to address the decision more rationally and objectively. There are some relevant questions to ask that I know LessWrong readers can help me answer.
- Which subjects and courses can make the best contribution to Epistemic Rationality?
- Which subjects and courses provide the most Instrumental Rationality benefits?
- Given all available information about the universe and what inferences can be drawn about my preferences and abilities what course structure should I choose?
- Which course do you just happen to like?
1. Which subjects and courses can make the best contribution to Epistemic Rationality?
I happen to care about Epistemic Rationality for its own sake. Both for me personally and in those whom I encounter. It is Fun! This means that I like both to add new information to my Map and to develop skills that enhance my general ability to build and improve upon that map.
Not all knowledge is created equal. While whole posts could be dedicated to what things are the most important to know. I don't want to learn gigabytes of statistics on sport performances. I prefer, and may be tempted to argue that it is fundamentally better, to learn concepts than facts and in particular concepts that are the most related to fundamental reality. This includes physics and the most applicable types of mathematics (eg. probability theory).
For some types of knowledge that are worth learning university is not a desirable place to learn them. Philosophy is Fun. But the philosophy I would learn at university is too influenced by traditional knowledge and paying rent to impressive figures. The optimal behavior when studying or researching philosophy is not to Dissolve the Question. It is to convey that the question is deep and contentious, affiliate with one 'side' and do battle within an obsolete and suboptimal way of Carving Reality. My frank opinion is that many philosophers need to spend more time programming, creating simulated realities, or at least doing mathematics before they can hope to make a useful contribution to thought. (I'm voicing a potentially controversial position here that I know some would agree with but for which I am also inviting debate.)
There are some subjects that are better served for improving thinking itself as well as merely learning existing thoughts. I'll list some that spring to mind but I suspect some of them may be red herrings and there are others you may be able to suggest that I just haven't considered.
- Mathematics and Statistics with specialization in (Statistics/Stochastic Processes) or (Applied Mathematics)
- Mathematical Physics
- Science Informatics
- Bizarre as it first seemed to me: Bachelor of Commerce(Economics) with a concurrent Diploma in Mathematics and Statistics(Statistics/Stochastic Processes).
2. Which subjects and courses provide the most Instrumental Rationality benefits?
Fun is great, so is having accurate maps. But there are practical considerations too. You can't have fun if you starve and fun may not last too long if you are unable to contribute directly or financially to the efforts that ensure the future of humanity. Again there are two considerations:
- What learning facilitates making Instrumentally Rational choices (either in the abstract or practical sense)? The previously mentioned courses are relevant and subjects like game theory naturally spring to mind.
- What learning actually facilitates achieving something useful or otherwise fulfilling one's CEV? In many cases this will be entirely different to the subjects I have mentioned.
3. Given all available information about the universe and what inferences can be drawn about my preferences and abilities what course structure should I choose?
This is an invitation to Other-Optimize me. Please give me advice. Remember that giving advice is a signal of high status and as such is often an enjoyable experience to engage in. This is also a rare opportunity - you may be patronizing and I will not even respond in kind or with a curt dismissal. You can even be smug and condescending if that is what it takes for me to extract your insights!
Now, I should note that my decision to do another undergraduate degree is in no way based on a belief that it is just what I need to do to gain success. I already have more than enough education behind me (I have previously studied IT, AI and teaching).
- My source of income is something that I do independently and is not something that university attendance will unduly interfere with (especially since I can take a laptop to lectures).
- Working entirely independently does not satisfy the human need to be engaged in cooperative endeavor. In the long term this can interfere with both work performance, provoke Akrasia and diminish satisfaction. I do not particularly like working in an office. Studying (and probably tutoring) is ideal.
- Doing something that you are really, really good at that also gives social recognition is psychologically beneficial. Sitting exams is a more efficient way for me to satisfy the need for recognition than attempting to win at office politics.
- "Full Time" study is not at all "full time" for me. It is more like a part time hobby.
(Call bullshit on that if you think I am rationalizing or believe there are better alternatives to give me what you infer from here or elsewhere that I want.)
Now, assuming that I am going to be studying an undergraduate course, which course maximizes the expected benefit?
Something I am considering is a double major Bachelor of Science(pharmacology, mathematical statistics). Recent conversations that I have participated in here give an indication as to my existing interest in pharmacology. I have some plans in mind that would contribute to furthering human knowledge on non-patented pharmaceutical substances. In particular life-extension drugs and nootropics. This is an area that I believe is drastically overlooked, to the extent of being species wide negligence. Consider this to be a significant goal that I want my studying to contribute to.
The most effective contribution I can make there will likely involve leveraging financial resources that I earn elsewhere but I mostly have financial considerations covered. I also want to ensure I know what is going on and know what needs to be done at a detailed level. That means learning pharmacology. But it also means learning statistics of some sort. What statistics should I learn? Should I focus on improving my understanding of Bayesian statistics or should I immerse myself in some more ad-hoc frequentest tools that can be used to look impressive?
4. Which course do you just happen to like?
What other subjects are relevant to the sort of concepts we like discussing here? Perhaps something from sociology or psych? I have breadth subjects I need to fill, which gives me the chance to look at some topics in somewhat more depth than just a post (but sometimes possibly less depth than a whole post sequence!) I'm also rather curious which subjects like-minded people just wish they had a chance to study. If you were trapped in the SGC in a groundhog day time loop which topics would you want to learn?
My guess is that for instrumental rationality the optimal courses are dance, yoga, and above all acting. Just don't try to use them as credentials.
The Dark Arts only look dark from the outside. Reality is more complicated, predictably less black and white. Also, the main defense against dark arts IS dark arts. Also, there's little virtue in not using abilities you don't have on moral grounds. Finally, we all have a lot of psychology here, but acting out behaviors you don't understand will help you to understand them.
Very seriously, those who relinquish the known dark arts will invent their own path to the abyss, a path without the protective guard-rails and warning signs worked out by billions of predecessors. We're much better in this crowd at overcoming the surface manifestations of self-deception promoting processes than we are at resisting self-deception. We end up self-deceiving in unusual ways, but predictable ways for someone who has met enough rationalists.
I kept having nightmares for about a decade after completing my last university course, so I find it hard to understand anyone wanting to go back to school. Ok, now that I've gotten that off my chest...
When I visited SIAI a few months ago, I participated in drafting a list of study topics for visiting fellows. I think it's now being used by SIAI internally, but perhaps eventually a version will be produced for public consumption. For now I'll just try to answer 2 and 4.
It seems to me that an important but easily overlooked step to fulfilling one's EV is to figure out what it is. Philosophers haven't found the answer yet, but studying philosophy at least gives you some idea of what kinds of answers people have already considered and found unsatisfactory. I would prefer to do this by reading/skimming books, but if you must take a course...
My favorite university courses were:
My favorite self-taught topics are:
I just graduated from undergrad in mathematics, so perhaps I have less perspective, or perhaps I have a "fresher" perspective! I don't know.
A few classes that I enjoyed without expecting it:
-a class called "Feminism and Science." I would be very surprised if there were classes in feminist science studies at your school, but they have a perspective on rationality and science studies that is unique and valuable.
--relatedly, I wish that I had taken courses in feminism. It wasn't until the last year that I realized how much of feminism d... (read more)
That's interesting. In my experience, when one attempts to study human mating behavior -- and the human behavioral sexual dimorphism in general -- in a completely detached manner, as if one were a space alien without any agenda or preconceptions, the resulting insights tend to sound shockingly evil from a feminist perspective, and regularly elicit instinctive condemnation with little actual understanding from feminist authors.
Of course, it could be that my view of what constitutes neutral and detached observations is skewed by various biases, or that I am oblivious of more intellectually competent and honest feminist authors. Therefore, I think it would be interesting to see a top-level post, or at least an open thread comment, elaborating on your insights in this area. This with all the usual caveats that apply to politically and ideologically charged topics, of course.
I share wedrifid's opinion on feminism and feminist studies. Yet I have also taken feminist studies classes, and my experiences also overlap with yours, though I had significant experience with feminism prior to taking those classes which undoubtedly colored my judgment. I will briefly outline the development of my views around gender politics:
As a teenager, I started out with feminist intuitions, believing that feminism could do no wrong.
I got into pickup, and I read Why Men Are The Way They Are by Warren Farrell. My experience as a shy, romantically-challenged, gender non-conforming young man, combined with Farrell's book and the arguments of the pickup and seduction community, led to a perspective on gender politics that became increasingly different from feminism. Feminists emphasized the oppression of women and "male privilege." I could see these phenomena, but I also say phenomena that looked pretty clearly like male oppression and "femal
Some of the biggest problems with feminist studies from an epistemological standpoint were not things that feminists said, but what they didn't say. Feminist professors and writing just start throwing around all these terms like "patriarchy," "male privilege", "oppression", "power", "dominance", and "sexism." Yet the conceptualization of these terms was never explained or defended. I view them as a castle built on sand.
Nowadays, you can find some 101 explanations of feminism, such as Finally Feminism 101, but I wonder if anyone else finds the quality of reasoning to be pretty bad. For example, try to figure out why there is no such thing as "female privilege":
This argument assumes tha... (read more)
What does it mean to say that women are "institutionally lower-status" than men, and what is the metric for institutional status? This notion is counter-intuitive to me, because I think there are multiple institutions and multiple dimensions of status. Although I think it's plausible that men were indeed institutionally higher-status in many cultures throughout history, specifying why is actually a nontrivial philosophical problem that I don't feel feminists have thoroughly confronted.
For example, in Colombia, institutions may grant males more prestige, yet grant women more protection. Which gender has more "status" depends on whether your metric of status is something like "who is more likely to be in charge of the household," or "who is more likely to die horrible deaths to chainsaws or machetes." I'm not sure how we we can aggregate these metrics, considering how dramatically different the units are; it's kind of like adding up feet and pounds. Do dead men have status?
It's also common, if low status people attempt to influence a group, for their ideas to not be heard until the idea is picked up by a higher status person. The low status person never gets credit, but has influenced the group.
I was in a pagan group for a while which met at somewhat irregular times and places. A high status person in the group would call people to tell them about when and where.
I later found out that one of the reasons the group eventually dissolved was that the low status person who'd been reminding the high status person to do the phone calls had moved out of the area.
I don't know how common that sort of thing is, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's an important but almost invisible feature of how things work.
I can't really speak about other specialisations, but mathematical physics seems to me not too beneficial for general thinking skills. I know at least two mathematical physicists who think that the main task in the job is to suppress your intuitions (which isn't itself bad) at any cost (this is worse). So any heuristic argument they dismiss until you have find the correct way to prove it. The obsession with proofs makes mathematical physics (and mathematics in general) in my eyes closer to what is here called Traditional rationality than to Bayesian approa... (read more)
First, you should take the minimum number of classes necessary for graduation because school is so much less efficient than other learning methods. (For example, you can watch videolectures from the best professors in the world for free at your convenience. Then download the lectures + VLC, change the playback speed, and learn everything 50% faster.)
As long as you are taking classes, you might as well try to learn things that are a good fit for them.
If the school has some "big names" who teach about their area of specialty, consider taking their classes. One of the very important researchers in my field was a professor at my university while I was there, but I had no idea at that time what he did, so I missed out.
1 . Really there are two things you need to get good at. First, there's "rationality" itself, for which you should learn the math and learn about cognitive bias etc. Second, there's the content of your beliefs; in other words, learning everything there is to know. So my answer for #1 is: find a big gap in your knowledge, and fill it.
2 . This is a very complicated question. In the big picture sense, the things that would be of most benefit to you would be things that have a huge impact on the future, like topics relevant to FAI or Transhumanis... (read more)
I haven't got enough time perspective to know what's useful in the long run. I also just graduated in math.
Fun/easy: a class in ethics and public policy. I find that it's much easier to deal with contemporary debates from the perspective of political philosophy.
Fun/not so easy: Fourier analysis, complex analysis, random processes.
Classes I wish I had taken: any computer science. I had an irrational fear that I'd be blown out of the water by "hacker kids" -- now that I realize there are things I want to do that require more advanced programming, I'll have to self-teach.
Classes that changed how I see the world: intro econ, Fourier analysis
well, looking at things in terms of a decomposition into frequencies is kind of a universal insight. At least to me. And it inspires different kinds of bases and dictionaries for signal processing. "What's the best basis to expand this in?" is a question I find myself asking about just about everything these days. Getting meaning from observations is, to me, finding a sparse basis representation.
In other words: it kind of only changes how you see the world mathematically, but for me that's a big part of the world.
I got an amazing amount of use out of Order of Magnitude Physics. It can get you in the habit of estimating everything in terms of numbers. I've found that relentlessly calculating estimates greatly reduces the number of biased intuitive judgments I make. A good class will include a lot of interaction and out-loud thinking about the assumptions your estimates are based on. Also or as an alternative, a high-level engineering design course can provide many of the same experiences within the context of a particular domain. (Aerospace/architecture/transpo... (read more)
This is not a specific advice, more of an algorithm.
My assumptions are that:
So here is my algorithm:
2 and 3. These parts are linked, in fact almost the same thing. The course that will bring you the greatest instrumental rationality really depends what you intend to do with it, which is presumably linked to what interests you. In general, you, or someone who knows you personally, would generally be better at answering this for you than very rational ... (read more)
When it's less early in the morning for me I'll come back and say something constructive. For now I'll just say that you can't count to 4.
What is it you currently do for income? How many hours a week do you devote to making money and how many hours a week do you plan on devoting to formal lecture attendance+studying?
I think pharmacology+statistics is a great double major. I certainly wish I had a degree in that rather than industrial engineering, but I would have had to have studied a lot harder than I did.