This is a link post for Five Years and One Week of Less Wrong. I was surprised to see that it was never cross-posted to LW in the first place. I wanted it to be here so that I could put it under the new Intellectual Progress via LessWrong tag.
I wrote a post a while ago called Read History Of Philosophy Backwards. I theorized that as old ways of thinking got replaced by newer ways, eventually people forgot the old ways even existed or were even coherent positions people could hold. So instead of reading Hobbes to tell you that people can form governments for their common advantage – which you already know – read him to tell you that there was a time when no one believed this was true and governments were natural structures ordained by God.
It makes sense that over five hundred years, with births and deaths and so on, people would forget they ever held strange and incomprehensible positions. It’s more surprising that it would happen within the course of a single person’s philosophical development. But this is what I keep hearing from people in the Less Wrong community.
“I re-read the Sequences”, they tell me, “and everything in them seems so obvious. But I have this intense memory of considering them revelatory at the time.”
This is my memory as well.
So I thought it would be an interesting project, suitable for the lofty milestone of five years plus one week, to go back and try to figure out how far we have progressed without noticing that we were progressing.
It was around the switch to Less Wrong that someone first brought up the word “akrasia” (I think it was me, but I’m not sure). I remember there being a time when I was very confused and scandalized by the idea that people might engage in actions other than those rationally entailed by their beliefs. This seems really silly now, but at the time I remember the response was mostly positive and people upvoted me a lot and said things like “Huh, yeah, I guess people might engage in actions other than those rationally entailed by their beliefs! Weird! We should worry about this more!” For a while, we were really confused about this, and a really popular solution (WHICH I ALWAYS HATED) was to try to imagine the mind as being made up of multiple agents trying to strike a bargain. Like, your conscious mind was an agent, your unconscious mind was an agent, your sex drive was an agent, and so on. Ciphergoth was the first person to help us get out of this by bringing up hyperbolic discounting (there was a time Less Wrong didn’t know about hyperbolic discounting!)
It wasn’t until well into the Less Wrong era that our community started to become aware of the problems with the scientific process. This wasn’t because we were behind the times but because the field was quite new; Ioannides didn’t publish his landmark paper until 2005, and it languished in specialized circles until the Atlantic picked it up in 2010. But as early as December 2009, Allan Crossman working off a comment of Eliezer’s wrote Parapsychology: The Control Group For Science.
It continues to puzzle me that there was a time when I didn’t know what a Schelling point was. I imagine myself just sort of wandering through life, not having any idea what was going on or why.
I’ll end with something that recently encouraged me a lot. Sometimes I talk to Will Newsome, or Steve Rayhawk, or Jennifer RM, or people like that in the general category of “we all know they are very smart but they have no ability to communicate their insights to others”. They say inscrutable things, and I nod and pretend to understand because it’s less painful than asking them to explain and sitting through an equally inscrutable explanation. And recently, the things that Will and Steve and Jennifer were saying a couple of years ago have started making perfect sense to me. The things they’re saying now still sound like nonsense, but now I can be optimistic that in a few years I’ll pick up those too.
This was my feeling also when I went back to the sequences and I figured I was just suffering from hindsight bias. But then I encountered someone else who had never read the sequences or really even hung out around rationalists who was able to reproduce a lot of the ideas, which made me think that maybe a lot of the sequences is just the stuff that you think about if you're smart and you spend a while thinking about how to think about stuff.
My experience was that I had already thought about many things that Eliezer described in the Sequences, except that he took the thought a bit further, and then connected it with some other thoughts. Also it felt awesome to have a social proof that I was not the only person in the world thinking about "weird" things.
I assume if one never thought much in that direction, then the Sequences would simply be too much, too weird.
Most of the ideas in the Sequences are available elsewhere, too. You could probably get 90% of the information by reading five carefully selected books. I still appreciate having them neatly collected, and connected in what feels like a coherent whole.
Maybe just as important are the things that are not in the Sequences. There are many books out there that mix good stuff with bad stuff. I like the absence of applause lights, mysterious explanations, arguments by definition, etc. There are many smart books and smart people, who just can't resist doing also something incredibly insane (by our standards). I already had a bad feeling about that, but couldn't articulate it.