Followup toLawrence Watt-Evans's Fiction
Reply toOn Juvenile Fiction

MBlume asked us to remember what childhood stories might have influenced us toward rationality; and this was given such excellent answers as Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.  So now I'd like to ask a related question, expanding the purview to all novels (adult or child, SF&F or literary):  Where can we find explicitly rationalist fiction?

Now of course there are a great many characters who claim to be using logic.  The whole genre of mystery stories with seemingly logical detectives, starting from Sherlock Holmes, would stand in witness of that.

But when you look at what Sherlock Holmes does - you can't go out and do it at home.  Sherlock Holmes is not really operating by any sort of reproducible method.  He is operating by magically finding the right clues and carrying out magically correct complicated chains of deduction.  Maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that reading Sherlock Holmes does not inspire you to go and do likewise.  Holmes is a mutant superhero.  And even if you did try to imitate him, it would never work in real life.

Contrast to A. E. van Vogt's Null-A novels, starting with The World of Null-A.  Now let it first be admitted that Van Vogt had a number of flaws as an author.  With that said, it is probably a historical fact about my causal origins, that the Null-A books had an impact on my mind that I didn't even realize until years later.  It's not the sort of book that I read over and over again, I read it and then put it down, but -

- but this is where I was first exposed to such concepts as "The map is not the territory" and "rose1 is not rose2".

Null-A stands for "Non-Aristotelian", and the premise of the ficton is that studying Korzybski's General Semantics makes you a superhero.  Let's not really go into that part.  But in the Null-A ficton:

1)  The protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, is not a mutant.  He has studied rationality techniques that have been systematized and are used by other members of his society, not just him.

2)  Van Vogt tells us what (some of) these principles are, rather than leaving them mysteriously blank - we can't be Gilbert Gosseyn, but we can at least use some of this stuff.

3)  Van Vogt conveys the experience, shows Gosseyn in action using the principles, rather than leaving them to triumphant explanation afterward.  We are put into Gosseyn's shoes at the moment of his e.g. making a conscious distinction between two different things referred to by the same name.

This is a high standard to meet.

But Marc Stiegler's David's Sling (quoted in e.g. this post) meets this same standard:  The Zetetics derive their abilities from training in a systematized tradition; we get to see the actual principles the Zetetics are using, and they're ones we could try to apply in real life; and we're put into their shoes at the moments of their use.

I mention this to show that it isn't only van Vogt who's ever done this.


...those two examples actually exhaust my knowledge of the science fiction and fantasy literature, so far as I can remember.

It really is a very high standard we're setting here.  To realistically show your characters using an interesting technique of rationality, you have to know an interesting technique of rationality.  Van Vogt was inspired by Korzybski, who - I discovered when I looked this up, just now - actually invented the phrase "The map is not the territory".  Marc Stiegler was inspired by, among other sources, Eric Drexler and Robin Hanson.  (Stiegler has another novel called Earthweb about using prediction markets to defend the Earth from invading aliens, which was my introduction to the concept of prediction markets.)

If I relax the standard to focus mainly on item (3), fiction that transmits a powerful experience of using rationality, then I could add in Greg Egan's Distress, some of Lawrence Watt-Evans's strange little novels, the travails of Salvor Hardin in the first Foundation novel, and probably any number of others.

But what I'm really interested in is whether there's any full-blown Rationalist Fiction that I've missed - or maybe just haven't remembered.  Failing that, I'm interested in stories that merely do a good job of conveying a rationalist experience.  (Please specify which of these cases is true, if you make a recommendation.)

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How about Scooby Doo? It's elementary, but I spent a lot of time on it back when I was 3-4 and would have continued watching for somewhat longer if they hadn't started introducing stories where the magic WAS real.
The moral "it's ALWAYS natural" and the extremely repetitive plots (repetition is, I suspect, very good for kids) are basic but definitely positive.
Only saw one or two episodes, but I think Kimba the White Lion may also have had positive but elementary rationalist messages.

Especially because Scooby Doo always featured a villain who was taking advantage of peoples' superstition and irrationality.

Scooby Doo, absolutely. The mystery was always solved; the reason was always given.

How about The Bloodhound Gang on that PBS show Electric Company? Same formula as Scooby Doo.

Although admittedly this is not fiction, exactly.

I'm...assuming this isn't the same Bloodhound Gang which went on to record The Bad Touch and Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo?

I believe the segment on the Electric Company is where that group derived its name. Although I'm not sure. No taste for that sort of thing.

checks wikipedia

you're quite right =)

It's odd I don't remember the original Bloodhound Gang then, I do remember 3-2-1 Contact...did the Bloodhound Gang perhaps either replace or predate Mathnet? Because that's what I remember -- two faux-FBI agents solving crimes by triangulation and the fibonacci sequence and so forth.

The Bloodhound Gang predated MathNet. They were a subshow of 3-2-1 Contact; MathNet was a subshow of Square One, which followed 3-2-1 by many years.

Thank you! I was completely mixing up Contact and Square One -- it's been too long.

Mathman, no! 7 minus 4 is not 4!

Aaargh! How could you do this? You almost NEVER win a level!

3-2-1 Contact - that was the name of that show - not the Electric Company. That's the bad 80s hit, isn't it ...?

I don't remember seeing anything called Mathnet. My 3-2-1 Contact memories are roughly 1980-1984, somewhere thereabouts. Yours?

ah, about...1991-1994, so that explains it nicely. Did you get Reading Rainbow and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego before and after, by any chance?

Did see Reading Rainbow, although I think this was later ... late 80s?. We had Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego as a computer game, late 80s, also, I believe. The game was boring as sin.

I liked Terry Pratchett's book "The Wee Free Men". It's a fantasy novel where the main character saves herself by having "First Sight" (original seeing; the ability to notice what her eyes are telling her even when she wouldn't have expected it) and "Second Thoughts" (cognitive reflectiveness; the ability to look over her own thinking for biases and distortions).

In defense of Conan Doyle, Wikipedia says:

Sherlock Holmes remains a great inspiration for forensic science, especially for the way his acute study of a crime scene yields small clues as to the precise sequence of events... All of the techniques advocated by Holmes would later become reality, but were generally in their infancy at the time Conan Doyle was writing.

and goes off to claim that later detective fiction actually became less realistic as writers shifted attention to psychology rather than forensics.

It's interesting that "Watchmen" (in theaters now) is the Hamlet of a genre that is strongly anti-rational, yet has numerous rational elements. The most important, I think, is that the Earth is saved only by inhumanly rational people making rational decisions - rational decisions which the typical viewer cannot condone even after the fact, even knowing that they saved the Earth. In so doing, it proves to these viewers, not just consciously but deep in their gut, that they themselves would doom Earth by their irrationality.

On the other hand, Dr. Manhattan embodies the popular culture's prejudice against rationality perfectly when he explains why he isn't interested in life by saying, "A living body and a dead one contain the same number of atoms". People try to imagine why scientists are interested in little things under microscopes, but not in gossip or football games. They can't imagine that the little things under the microscope are actually more interesting, so they conclude that scientists are cold and boring, and thus unable to see how interesting gossip and football really are.

You can't do what the character does, and in the comic it's strongly implied that it didn't work anyway.

I see Dr. Manhattan's problem as not being rationality, but A) seeing things at a subatomic level and having to expend effort to see them at a human level, B) seeing all parts of time, so that 'to the left of something alive' and 'after being alive' are basically the same idea, and C) being so struck by fatalism due to B that he's basically given up.

I think you're steelmanning too much.

Dr. Manhattan shows interest in scientific experiments, even though scientific experiments should be prone to all of those problems as well. You never see him say he doesn't care about doing an experiment because the number of atoms before and after the experiment is the same.

Furthermore, Dr. Manhattan "changes his mind" when he sees how Laurie is worthy of respect despite her background, That's not a very close fit to overcoming the problems you describe, but it is a close fit for overcoming the "problems" of stereotypical "rationality".

I think that fits as part of point C. He has become Jacques the Fatalist minus the sense of humor.

Jimmy, the main character of Fleep is, at least, a very good empiricist. I'm undecided on how artificial the evidence he has to work from is, but it's an entertaining story, and you can probably read it in about ten minutes.

Admittedly, given the actual answer, there may be an additional reason why he was able to figure it out...

How about The Hardy Boys? I read dozens of these as a young kid, and the thing that stands out in mind now is, there was always an answer to the mystery, one that could be arrived at via clues and deduction. Looking back now, I think they had a major impact on my manner of thinking, reading them as young as I did (kindergarten and 1st grade, I'm talking) such that years later I was inclined to look favorably upon a 'rationality technique' when I encountered the idea of one on OB.

I also read lots of The Hardy Boys (original series) as a kid and loved them. I don't know if they nudged me towards rationality or I liked them because I already felt the pull of rationality, but they were probably a strong influence now that I think about it.

In defense of Sherlock Holmes:

The typical Sherlock Holmes story has Holmes perform twice. First he impresses his client with a seemingly impossible deduction; then he uses another deduction to solve the mystery. Watson or the client convince Holmes to explain the first deduction, which gives the reader the template Holmes will use for the second (likely inferences from small details). The data that Holmes uses to make the second deduction are in the text and available to the reader--the reader's challenge is to make Holmes's inference in advance.

Holmes himself attributes his success to observation, not rationality. (There's a startling passage in A Study In Scarlet where Holmes tells Watson that he can't be bothered to remember that the sun orbits the earth! Visit the link and search for 'Copernican Theory' in the full text for the passage.) The Sherlock Holmes stories are intended to be exercises in attention to detail, which is surely a useful skill for a rationalist.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains is often more improbable than your having made a mistake in one of your impossibility proofs.

Beautiful comment, but I'd add that whatever remains of the hypotheses you considered is often more improbable than your having missed an unconsidered alternative.

I just stumbled across this and felt this comment and the one above it were worth reminding everyone of in light the Knox case discussion. Way too many of our discussions have involved trying to come up with accounts of the crime that make sense of all the evidence. In retrospect I would labels such discussions as fun, but unhelpful.

This reminds me of a bit in the Illuminatus! trilogy-- there was a man who had filing cabinets full of information about the Kennedy assassination. [1]

He kept hoping that he'd find one more piece of information which would make sense of everything he'd accumulated, little realizing that most of what he had was people getting things wrong and covering their asses.

[1] Once upon a time, it was normal to store information in filing cabinets, and there was only one Kennedy assassination.

I reject that entirely. The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’

-- Dirk Gently

I view Dirk Gently as a kind of wonderfully effective strawman, and his stories were a great aid to realizing I was an atheist, because at first he seems correct: surely, rather than a "localized meteorological phenomenon", it makes more sense that the guy who's been rained on for 14 straight years is some kind of rain god.

And then you think about what would happen in the real world, and realize that no, even if someone had been rained on for 14 years straight, I would not believe that they were a rain god. Because rain gods are actually impossible.

That part hit me like a punch in the gut.

In the real world, these are mostly just games we play with words.

Someone who has been rained on for 14 years straight has an extremely surprising property.

The label we assign that property matters a little, since it affects our subsequent behavior with respect to it. If I call it "rain god" I may be more inclined to worship it; if I label it a "localized meteorological phenomenon" I might be more inclined to study it using the techniques of meteorology; if I label it an extremely unlikely coincidence I might be more inclined not to study it at all; if I label it the work of pranksters with advanced technology I might be more inclined to look for pranksters, etc.


But other things matter far more.

Do they have any other equally unlikely observable attributes, for example?
Did anything equally unlikely occur 14 years ago?


Worrying overmuch about labels can distract us from actually observing what's in front of us.

So it wouldn't be possible to convince you that 2+2=3? No matter the evidence?

If someone claimed to be a rain god, or was credibly claimed to be a rain god based on previous evidence, and tested this by going through an EMP, stripping, generally removing any plausible way technological means could be associated with them, then being transported while in a medically-induced coma to a series of destinations not disclosed to them in advance in large deserts, and at all times was directly under, in, or above rainclouds, defying all meteorological patterns predicted by the best models just in advance of the trip, I find it hard to see how you could reasonably fail to assign significant probability to a model which made the same predictions as "this person is a rain god".

It'd be possible, but it would take more evidence than someone having been rained on for 14 years.

If you're talking about models and predictions you've already made the relevant leap, IMO. Even if you're calling the person a "god", you're still taking a fundamentally naturalistic approach; you're not assuming basic mental entities, you're not worshiping.

Calling someone a rain god is making the prediction "If I worship this person, rain will occur at the times I need it more often than it would if I did not worship this person." Worship doesn't stop being worship just because it works.

Where does personal insanity become a factor in your probability estimates?

In some sense, basically everywhere there is a very-low or very-high probability belief, since obviously I can't be more confident in any belief than I can be in the reliableness of my system of reasoning. I definitely consider this when I'm evaluating the proper strength of nearly-certain beliefs. In another sense, almost nowhere.

I don't know exactly how confident I should be in my sanity, except that the probability of insanity is small. Also, I'm not confident there would be any evidence distinguishing 'sane and rational' from 'insane but apparently rational'. I model a logical-insane VAuroch as being like the anti-inductors; following different rules which, according to their own standards, are self-consistent.

Since I can't determine how to quantify it, my response has been to treat all other beliefs as conditioned on "my reasoning process is basically sound", which makes a fair number of my beliefs having tacit probability 1; if I find reason to question any of these beliefs, I will have to rederive every belief from the original evidence as much as possible, because it's exposed a significant flaw in the means by which I determine what beliefs to hold. Largely this consists of mathematical proofs, but also things like "there is not currently a flying green elephant in this room" and "an extant rain god is mutually incompatible with reductionism".

Since I can't determine how to quantify it, my response has been to treat all other beliefs as conditioned on "my reasoning process is basically sound", which makes a fair number of my beliefs having tacit probability 1; if I find reason to question any of these beliefs, I will have to rederive every belief from the original evidence as much as possible, because it's exposed a significant flaw in the means by which I determine what beliefs to hold. Largely this consists of mathematical proofs, but also things like "there is not currently a flying green elephant in this room" and "an extant rain god is mutually incompatible with reductionism".

This is an amazingly apt description of the mind-state that Robert Anton Wilson called "Chapel Perilous".

It is interesting that you think so, but I can't make head or tail of his description of the state, and other descriptions don't bear any particular resemblance to the state of mind I describe.

My position on the matter boils down to "All my beliefs may be unjustified, but until I have evidence suggesting they are, I should provisionally assume the opposite, because worrying about it is counterproductive."

The thing is, it's usually much easier to solve the mystery by getting a feel for Doyle's tells than by trying to piece together whatever abstruse chain of deductions Holmes is going to use. Examples:

  • Watson is an incredibly good judge of character. If he thinks someone seems cold, that person is heartless. If he says someone seems shifty, they are guilty of something (although maybe not the crime under investigation).

  • The woman never did it. The only two exceptions to this are a story in which he clears one woman to implicate another (who is the only other possible suspect), and one in which an innocent woman is corrupted and manipulated by an evil man.

Just from those two rules you can usually figure out whodunit, at which point you can occupy yourself by figuring out how, a task made relatively simple by conservation of detail.

"Holmes himself attributes his success to observation, not rationality. (There's a startling passage in A Study In Scarlet where Holmes tells Watson that he can't be bothered to remember that the sun orbits the earth!)"

He then states that such knowledge can have no influence on the things he's concerned about, and so he doesn't bother learning it.

That seems like a starkly rational position.

I appreciate your defense of Holmes. As I mentioned in another comment, I haven't read much of him, but I do remember one particular passage which annoyed me due to the way I had felt like I could have figured out the deductions had I been there personally, but because of the way Dr Watson narrates, the deduction eluded me.

Basically, Watson describes the client as wearing some sort of "odd circular jewelry with square holes through which a thin string was passed" (paraphrased from memory). From this, Sherlock deduces that the client has recently been on vacation to China. How? Well, that jewelry are Chinese coins, of course!

I know what Chinese coins look like, but was completely misled by Watson's description. Furthermore, "recent vacation to China" is somewhat of a lucky guess. Perhaps it was a friend who went to China, and brought these coins back as a souvenir gift.

Perhaps it was a friend who went to China, and brought these coins back as a souvenir gift.

Fortunately you can rely on Conan Doyle and writers in general being parsimonious: unlike reality, stories don't contain odd details unless they're important to the plot.

I don't think that most Holmes stories should even be read as we do modern mystery stories. They are adventure stories, and Conan Doyle is more like an intellectual Raymond Chandler than a precursor to Agatha Christie (although I suppose, in fact, that he is both). It's simply impossible to solve most of the early ones (including A Study in Scarlet), although the later stories (which postdate Christie's first stories) were more honest mysteries. (At one point he even has Watson apologise for having been unfair in the past.)

The manga/anime series "Death Note"

It's a long mental battle between two clever people, not much for rationality techniques, but characters think rationally, and the magical parts have well defined rules, similar to Lawrence Watt-Evans' fiction.

I would be terribly thankful to anybody who could reccomend me some more stories involving these sorts of fights. Trickery and betrayal is common enough, but a prolonged fued of this nature is rare.

Death Note is a brilliant anime, but not really a great of an example of rationality. Tvtropes calls it Xanatos Roulette.

First you start with a smart plan. That can be rational. Then you complicate the plan. It makes characters look even smarter, and still quite rational. At some point the plan is so overcomplicated, so many uncertainties are just assumed, that it's no longer rationality but plain omniscience and characters "knowing the script of future episodes". That's what Death Note is. Light and L overplot, and it's really fun to watch, and they look really "smart" when it's well done, but it's way past any reasonable pretense of rationality.

TvTropes has more examples, like Saw series. They're all great fun, and not much rational.

I really liked the Death Note anime. However, I think it's much more Sherlock-Holmes-ish than what Eliezer is asking for here. It's been quite a long time since I saw it, but I remember at the time I was annoyed often when both the protagonist and the antagonist would make "very lucky guesses", deducing something which is possible given the evidence at hand, but far from being the only possibility from said evidence. I haven't read much Sherlock, but from what I've heard, Sherlock similarly makes amazingly lucky guesses. Certainly, EY's summary of "magically finding the right clues and carrying out magically correct complicated chains of deduction" seems to indicate so.

I'd have to watch the Death Note series again to give any specific examples. Maybe I will do that, but probably not within the next month.

I've heard that complaint a lot, and I agree in the case of Sherlock Holmes, but death note seemed somehow plausible.

If you can remember it at all, do you think you could tell me specifically which parts you thought were "lucky guesses"? I like to keep those sorts of things in mind when re-reading.

If you can remember it at all, do you think you could tell me specifically which parts you thought were "lucky guesses"? I like to keep those sorts of things in mind when re-reading.

Well, just to name the most major one: Near & Mikami. If you remember the details of the ending, Light's control of Mikami would have guaranteed victory for him.

But then Near goes into some trance in front of dozens of TVs and magically figures out that Mikami is a Kira! I was flabbergasted when I reached that chapter. I hope I don't sound too ranty & overwrought here, but that particular plot event was the single greatest flaw in all of Death Note, because it is so ludicrously pathetic.

It felt like the author said to himself. 'Well, obviously I can't let Light win, but Light can't lose without Mikami being discovered. Yet I have absolutely no way to expose Mikami to Near, because Mikami is not an idiot who will fall for some clever tricks like Light did. I know! I'll just, without any reason, make Near know about Mikami. No one will notice this giant gaping plot hole. Bwa ha ha ha!'

I really hope that we all think that developing better techniques for rationality is more important than sparing people spoilers in their fiction.

If you don't spare people the spoilers, they don't read your website. (That was my family tradition, anyway.)

We can do both, though. Does the benefit of including a spoiler in a discussion outweigh the harm of imposing a spoiler on someone?

I agree until the last paragraph, I seem to remember thinking that there was a way it could have been done better, and that I could excuse his error because he wasn't overcoming an impossibility.

Unfortunately, I dont remember how I thought to fix it.

Like I said, I don't plan on rewatching the anime any time soon (and I don't know how the anime differs from the manga). That said, if you're serious about it, send me a private message and I'll send you my MSN account so that you can nag me on there so I don't forget to respond to this. =)

As far as I know, there is no private-message function built in to lesswrong. I prefer to maintain some level of anonymity anyway, and it would hardly be worth creating an account specifically for this purpose. I don't care that much, though a general idea of which character does it or when would be appreciated.

All that aside, reading it made the whole thing move a lot faster, which probably contributed to the enjoyment, but I otherwise I think they are fairly similar.

There actually is a private messaging thing built into LW, but it's not obvious, and there's no direct link to see incoming messages.

go to to see your inbox (which includes replies to your comments).

Also, if you click on someone else's name, that is, so you can see a different person's profile, then there will be a direct link available to message them. But, again, unless they're actively checking, I don't think they'll have any obvious way to know that a message was sent to them.

EDIT: when I said there's no direct link, I meant "there's no obvious simple path from just clicking stuff on the front page of LW to get to your inbox"

I've spent a lot of time scouring for something similar, Code Geass was one of the better ones.

Any particular reason to single those two out? I might give The Dosadi Experiment higher priority.

I don't recommend The Dosadi Experiment as a good example of rationality; I explicitly de-recommend it.

The Vor Game, aside from being delightful, can be seen as a wonderful lesson in how setting priorities can be helpful, but it's not about rationality, it's about personal manipulation. One character groks another's motivational structure and creates a situation that will make her "fall off the horse", so to speak.

Vorkosigan works primarily through charisma and sub-conscious analysis. He's not a rationalist in any particular sense.

Ditto for Death Note, though only the first season. The logic of a story is that the good guys will win in the end, which is not what you should necessarily expect in real life.


The awesomeness of Death Note's first season was not just in the decent instrumental rationality attributed to the characters (which gave me a very good impression), but also in that you couldn't guess who would win. (Edited for spoilers)

Please edit this to remove everything after "...couldn't guess who would win". We don't have proper support for spoilers in comments, and saying "spoilers" isn't enough.

(I don't have facilities to edit your comment myself, just remove it.)

EDIT: Wasn't edited after a bit, so banned, alas.

Seeing as there's no obvious automated notification of replies, banning someone for not noticing a reply seems unfair.

He's really just deleted the comment -- for some reason the software uses the word "ban". The commenter is still registered.

Yes, it's unfair, yes, we should fix this at some point, but I deemed it more important to not spoil a unique anime.

I'm a little confused -- what does it mean to ban a comment? I know how one can delete a comment, or ban a user, but I've never heard the words used this way before.

Delete, really. The button just says "ban" if you're an administrator.

Any fiction that can't stand up to spoilers isn't worth reading. I would never recommend fiction that I haven't reread, often many times - I'd rather reread a good (or even fair) book for relaxation than get irritated trying to read something that drags. And if you're not reading it for relaxation, textbooks are better than any fiction.

If the story poses a puzzle for the reader, and the solution to the puzzle is given further down the plot, then spoilers can in fact reduce the enjoyability of the story. In Death Note, you can actually discover the flaw in the character's plan yourself if you pause the video and and think for a bit (although it helps that the protagonist's intelligence is a bit...uneven. Most real people aren't simultaneously stupid and smart like that). It's also fun to arrive at the best possible strategy for each's pretty satisfying when you and the character independently arrive at the same conclusion.

This only applies to very tightly written stories of course.

Agree that fiction that relies solely on spoilers isn't worth reading. Though I would not concur that textbooks are better than any fiction. Unless school has gotten waaaaaay better than I remember.

If you are not reading for relaxation, then you are probably reading for information; in that sense textbooks are better than fiction, since they have better presentation of the information in them.

The Prince of Nothing. The Prince of Nothing. The Prince of Nothing. I'll say it as many times as I have to to get people on this blog to read it. The Prince of Nothing Trilogy. The Darkness That Comes Before. R. Scott Bakker.

True, Anasurimbor Kellhus is one of the "mutants", even to the point of the author explicitly stating the Dunyain spent a few centuries running a eugenics program to get an intellect of that stature. But the later books of the trilogy also go into some detail about the rationalist training Kellhus undergoes with the Dunyain, the methods he uses, and even a little of the social structure of the Ishual monastery. He's one of the perspective characters, and we see him using his techniques; there's always a strong sense of "I could do that", which remains right up until I actually try. And there's no better work to demonstrate the "sense that more is possible", or the ways in which a real rationalist would be the polar opposite of the "Spock" prototype, or a bunch of other things (disclaimer: many don't become fully clear until The Thousandfold Thought, the last book in the trilogy).

The Dunyain conception of rationality isn't exactly like our own, and rereading it recently there were a few things that bothered me, but overall it's basically the story of a fantasy hero who is as good at probability theory as Aragorn is at swordfighting, with similar results.

I just finished the first book of the trilogy and it disappointed me. Kellhus is actually much better than Aragorn at swordfighting, which saves his ass all the time when he really should have thought in advance. His other (mental) superpower mostly manifests itself in charming people with NLP-like techniques, not probability theory: some fragments read almost like PUA sequences.

I'm still open for something that would fit your description, though :-)

Started reading the first one-- from the prologue alone, Kellhus seems absurdly strong/skilled/fast. He reads people's minds by looking at the patterns of their facial muscles, catches arrows out of the air, kills large groups of enemies by himself in hand-to-hand combat, etc. I'm not sure what lessons could really be derived from this, since these actions are far beyond the realm of normal human ability. Does the series/book get any better, or am I missing something here?

I've heard this complaint from others, and it's valid. Where the series really starts coming into its own, in my opinion, is around the end of the first book/ start of the second where Kellhus gets involved in politics and persuasion. This is the part that gives me a better understanding of "superintelligences" and what they might do.

I'll agree that the Scott Bakker's stuff is great rationality fiction.

I love the protag heading into the wilderness with his rationality training, encountering evidence that indicates error, and updating his beliefs. I think its awesome when he integrates the new evidence into his model of the world, investigates the confusing things about the world and resolves them. Then he exploits his greater knowledge of the world's structure to achieve amazing things.

I searched the site to see had anyone else here read this series, and specifically if anyone else had put quotes in the quotes thread. There's some great dialogue in book one that I think would fit well. (There's less in book two, and I've just started book three.) Glad to see people have heard of it!

I agree some aspects of Kellhus's abilities are a little cheesy (the probability trance and the NLP-style memory hacking come to mind), but he is still essentially a rationalist character, though his lack of morality means I can't really class him a hero.

The author blurb seems to indicate he's a professional philosopher - I'd be curious to read some of his writing.

Hello Less Wrong,

My first comment ever. I have been lurking on Less Wrong for several years already (and on Overcoming Bias before there was even a Less Wrong site), and have been mostly cyber-stalking EY ever since I caught wind of his AI-Box exploits.

This year 2012, on a whim, I joined the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last November, and started writing a novel I had been randomly thinking of making, "Judge on a Boat". The world is that humanity manages to grow up a little without blowing itself up, rationality techniques are taught regularly (a certain minimum level of knowledge in these techniques is required for all citizens), practical mind simulations and artificial intelligence are still far-off (but being actively worked on, somewhere way, way off in the background of the novel), and experts in morality and ethical systems, called "Judges", are given the proper respect they deserve.

The premise is that a trainee Judge, Nicole Angel, visiting Earth for her final examinations (she's from Mars Lagrange Point 1), gets marooned on a lifeboat with a small group of people. She is then forced to act as a full Judge (despite not actually passing the exams yet) for the people in the boat.

The other premise is that a new Judge, Emmanuel Verrens, is reading about Nicole Angel's adventures in novel form, under the guidance of high-ranking Judge David Adams. Emmanuel's thinking is remarkably similar to hers, despite her being a fictional character -

The novel was intended to be more about moral philosophy than strictly rationality, but as I was using Less Wrong as an ideas pump, it ended up being more about rationality, really. (^^)v

Anyway, if anyone is interested in the early draft text, see this.

My name is Dave, this is my first post.

I consider myself an aspiring newbie epistemic rationalist, having been turned on to it by HPMOR, i've been studying it for a couple months now and feel I have already greatly benefited from learning even the most basic concepts. I have read "Judge on a Boat" and found it quite as satisfying as HPMOR, and would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for another highly engaging, thought-provoking, rational fiction.

"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie"

A good primer on chaos theory for youth?

"Rendezvous with Rama"

Why have a plot when gradual discovery with expository dialogue will do.

"Contact" -Sagan

More scientific method

"The Diamond Age" -Stephenson

This book even has long discussions of computing

"Sideways Stories from Wayside School"

Anything with jokes is going to be about logic at some point.

"Of Human Bondage" -Maugham

This book has a famous scene where the Phillip goes to Paris to study art; you get the impression that he isn't very good at painting and as time goes on he starts to recognize that his fellow students are not great painters either. After two years, he gradually builds up the courage to have one of his instructors look at all of his work and let him know whether or not he can achieve his goal of becoming great painter. After he receives a negative verdict he commits to a new life plan.

I can't believe i forgot Wayside School -- those stories were brilliant. I wouldn't say they taught me any particular technique of rationality, more a general lightness of thought. And they were, of course, a joy to read.

To some extent, I don't believe that "realism", to the point of realistic rationalist techniques, is important.

Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Sherlock Holmes may fail to convey rationalist techniques, but they certainly convey rationalist values and beliefs, like "intelligence is useful", "observation is important", "there is a right answer". Enthusiasm for the subject is far more important to learning than a head start in knowing the subject.

Encyclopedia Brown is an especially bad example. Most of the mysteries he solves, he solves by knowing some piece of minor trivia which contradicts some off-hand statement of the criminal. This promotes "rationality" as "knowing a lot of facts", which is absolutely not what we're trying to promote here, and provides the wrong model of problem solving. Encyclopedia Brown is based on formal logic, not Bayesian probability.

Knowing lots of facts absolutely matters in the real world though. Having a good theoretical framework to organize them and logic (probablistic or otherwise) to manipulate them help too - but not without real facts.

But just "intelligence is useful" takes people farther than many intelligent people get. Seriously.

Empirical data point: Read the Encyclopedia Brown books and liked them, was probably influenced to some degree or other.

"Encyclopedia Brown is based on formal logic, not Bayesian probability."

1) Formal logic isn't the wrong model. 2) Encyclopedia Brown doesn't rely on logic except in a very trivial sense. 3) Encyclopedia Brown relies on an extensive knowledge of trivia which happen to become relevant; rather than being especially intelligent, he merely has an excellent memory and a rudimentary capacity for reason.

What is wrong with formal logic? Would the average fiction reader be harmed by becoming marginally better at formal logic?

I agree with your descriptions of the books. My point was that fiction celebrates various community values, and that some books celebrate rationalist values more than others.

Compare Encyclopedia Brown to Harry Potter. Both solve mysteries, but Harry Potter is explicitly skilled at sports and personal defense and explicitly incompetent at schoolwork.

If you require such specific rationality techniques as "Bayesian probability but not formal logic", your kids will not have many books to read.

My favorite Encyclopedia Brown stories were the ones where he wasn't solving mysteries, but where he was fooling the other children.

For example (and this is from memory so the details may be off), Brown wanted to make some money off the other children by running a gambling game, but he knew that he'd get in major trouble if he were caught doing such a thing. He asked an authority figure if he could just run a game where children paid money to win a toy randomly chosen by a spinner, and got (grudging) approval.

Then came his nifty idea: he'd only buy a few toys before the game started, so that he'd quickly run out. Once one of the children won an toy he had ran out of, he'd (after some hesitation for show) give them the amount of money it would take to buy that toy at the store, then make them "promise" that they'd go and spend the money on the toy. He knew that most of the children would stay and put the money right back into the game (thus turning it into real gambling), but he had established a veneer of plausible deniability; how could he know if they were spending from their own initial pocket money or from money they had won back?

I don't know how much of an example of rationalism that is, but I still think it's valuable for children to learn to think in terms of someone trying to game a system, as a third option beyond following the system strictly or breaking it outright. It's useful later on when they find themselves needing to game systems, or to build systems that are hard to game.

I think you may be thinking of The Great Brain, not Encyclopedia Brown, there. Encyclopedia Brown was a boy of upstanding moral character, which meant The Great Brain was more fun to read.

Perhaps you're right, it's been a while since I read those books.

Or non-facts.

I haven't read them, but I think it a bad sign that the tvtropes article "Conviction by Counterfactual Clue" is also known as "Encyclopedia Browned".

Whenever EB catches somebody this way, I always read it as that he's bluffing. After all, the perp always confesses when confronted with the alleged proof, so it really doesn't matter how EB knows (psychological analysis, another clue that would be harder to explain, the knowledge that Bugs Meany always lies); he just has to wait around until he can find something that he can claim proves his case.