My intellectual influences

by Richard_NgoThinking Complete4 min read22nd Nov 20201 comment

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Prompted by a friend's question about my reading history, I've been thinking about what shaped the worldview I have today. This has been a productive exercise, which I recommend to others. Although I worry that some of what's written below is post-hoc confabulation, at the very least it's forced me to pin down what I think I learned from each of the sources listed, which I expect will help me track how my views change from here on. This blog post focuses on non-fiction books (and some other writing); I've also written a blog post on how fiction has influenced me.

My first strong intellectual influence was Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writings on Less Wrong (now collected in Rationality: from AI to Zombies). I still agree with many of his core claims, but don’t buy into the overarching narratives as much. In particular, the idea of “rationality” doesn’t play a big role in my worldview any more. Instead I focus on specific habits and tools for thinking well (as in Superforecasters), and creating communities with productive epistemic standards (a focus of less rationalist accounts of reason and science, e.g. The Enigma of Reason and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

Two other strong influences around that time were Scott Alexander’s writings on tribalism in politics, and Robin Hanson’s work on signalling (particularly Elephant in the Brain), both of which are now foundational to my worldview. Both are loosely grounded in evolutionary psychology, although not reliant on it. More generally, even if I’m suspicious of many individual claims from evolutionary psychology, the idea that humans are continuous with animals is central to my worldview (see Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?). In particular, it has shaped my views on naturalistic ethics (via a variety of sources, with Wright’s The Moral Animal being perhaps the most central).

Another big worldview question is: how does the world actually change? At one point I bought into techno-economic determinism about history, based on reading big-picture books like Guns, Germs and Steel and The Silk Roads, and also because of my understanding of the history of science (e.g. the prevalence of multiple discovery). Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy nudged me towards thinking more about cultural factors; so did books like The Dream Machine and The Idea Factory, which describe how many technologies I take for granted were constructed. And reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy made me start thinking about the large-scale patterns in intellectual history (on which The Modern Mind further shaped my views).

This paved the way for me to believe that there’s room to have a comparable influence on our current world. Here I owe a lot to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation (and to a lesser extent its sequels), Peter Thiel’s talks and essays (and to a lesser extent his book Zero to One), and Paul Graham’s essays. My new perspective is similar to the standard “Silicon Valley mindset”, but focusing more on the role of ideas than technologies. To repurpose the well-known quote: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher.”

Here’s a more complete list of nonfiction books which have influenced me, organised by topic (although I’ve undoubtedly missed some). I welcome recommendations, whether they’re books that fit in with the list below, or books that fill gaps in it!

On ethics:

  • The Righteous Mind

  • Technology and the Virtues

  • Reasons and Persons

  • What Money Can’t Buy

  • The Precipice

On human evolution:

  • The Enigma of Reason

  • The Human Advantage

  • Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony

  • The Secret of our Success

  • Human Evolution (Dunbar)

  • The Mating Mind

  • The Symbolic Species

On human minds and thought:

  • Rationality: from AI to Zombies

  • The Elephant in the Brain

  • How to Create a Mind

  • Why Buddhism is True

  • The Blank Slate

  • The Language Instinct

  • The Stuff of Thought

  • The Mind is Flat

  • Superforecasting

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow

On other sciences:

  • Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies

  • Superintelligence

  • The Alignment Problem

  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

  • The Moral Animal

  • Ending Aging

  • Improbable Destinies

  • The Selfish Gene

  • The Blind Watchmaker

  • Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos

  • Quantum Computing Since Democritus

On science itself:

On philosophy:

  • A History of Western Philosophy

  • The Intentional Stance

  • From Bacteria to Bach and Back

  • Good and Real

  • The Big Picture

  • Consciousness and the Social Brain

  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

On history and economics:

On politics and society:

  • Destined for War

  • Prisoners of Geography

  • How Democracy Ends

  • Why Nations Fail

  • Factfulness

  • What Terrorists Want

  • The Lexus and the Olive Tree

  • Bowling Alone

  • Antifragile

  • The Female Eunuch

On life, love, etc:

  • Deep Work

  • Man's Search for Meaning

  • More Than Two

  • Authentic Happiness

  • Happiness by Design

  • Written in History

Other:

  • Age of Em

  • Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

  • Surely you’re Joking, Mr Feynman

  • Impro

  • Never Split the Difference

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1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:54 PM
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Great post and list! I always enjoy when people I find interesting share their favorite books/thinkers/ideas, while painting a picture of what they took from them. This will also surely provide inspiration for my own reading. Nice touch with linking the review from your blog, by the way (although the one I want the most, about Dennett and his work, apparently does not exist).

Trying to make my own compressed list of influential books:

  • Chaos, by James Gleick. This is the book that made me want to do science and research. Not that I was that enthralled by chaos theory (although it was exciting); instead, what captured my imagination was the day to day research work described in this book. People doggedly chasing ideas, and ending up with insights into the nature of reality after a lot of time and work. I had read science books before, and I liked maths and physics before, but never something so... tangible about research.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King. Just before my eighteenth birthday, I read this book. And then I started writing. It makes no sense retrospectively that I never tried writing, since I was a voracious reader and I wanted to create things. I wrote fiction, but writing regularly, adapting to an audience, thinking about what will be understood from the page, all this is still fundamental in almost everything I do today.
  • So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport. For all my teen years, I looked desperately for my passion. Every holiday was the occasion for trying something new, or going back to an old favorite. But I could never make anything stick, because nothing felt exactly right. Then at 20, I read Cal Newport's blog and book, and he blew my mind. He told me that while a preexisting passion does exists for some, this is not the case for most people. Even more if you cannot make your mind. And that there was hope of creating a fulfilling and meaningful path for you, if only you choose. A couple of times since then, I was unsure and lost, but I choose. And it made all the difference.