Eric Raymond's Shortform

by Eric Raymond26th Mar 202121 comments
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I'm considering writing, as a first post, a reflection on "Rationality Before The Sequences": some history on what the public project of less-wrongness looked like before Eliezer's heroic attempt at systematization.

This is a probe to discover if there would be significant interest in such an essay.

I remember David Stove's What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts (1991) being discussed on early-LW, and being influenced by it. I don't really know whether this was an outlier-unusually-good essay, or the tip of an iceberg of good pre-LW less-wrongness.

I like getting a better understanding of our historical context, and I sort of expect you’d point me to some pretty interesting things I’ve not heard of before and could go read. And could convey to me a sense of times you know about better than I. So I’d be interested.

I don’t know if you mean describing how the world looked in 2006, or if you’re thinking of a broader history of the effort. I personally like to think of us as continuing the work laid out by Francis Bacon and the Royal Society from 1660, and taking much of the spirit from great scientists along the way like Feynman and such.

Broader history, focusing on certain important developments in the 20th century.

This has a potential to be extremely cool.

Remembering that the ideology is not the movement, I would be interested in reading a history of both the ideas and the groups of people that formed around them. Especially, where are those parallel branches today, what have they achieved, what are they currently working on.

What is the reference group for the rationalist community, and what is their typical outcome? (My current guess is: "a strong personality becomes popular, gets many fans and publishes many books, coins one or two generally known idioms... then dies, and the fans keep talking about how awesome those books were, and that's all.")

Alas, I can't give you a sweeping history of a bunch of movements and factions.  The last group really comparable to today's rationalist movement was the community around Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics.  My essay will talk about them.

What is now being mulled over by my beta readers is somewhat more personal and depends on the premise that my experience was representative of a lot of 20th-century proto-rationalists, including in particular Eliezer.  Fortunately I don't have to handwave this; there's reasonably good evidence that it's true, some of which is indicated in the essay itself.

I depends on how you define This Sort of Thing , or rationalist/sceptic movements in general. If you use a definition along the lines of:-

• Being science-orientated , but having much more specific claims than "science good" • Being largely outside of mainstream academia etc • Being an insular group that mostly talk to each other • Having difficulty in communicating with outsiders , in any case, because their own theories are expressed in a novel jargon. • Centering on a charasmatic leader, with a set of mandatory writings • Having an immodest epistemology..which claims to be able to solve just about any problem.. • ..which is based on a small number of Weird Tricks.

...then you would need to include David Deutsch's followers as well..the Fabric of Reality was published in the 90s.

And this iteration of rationality borrows Deutsch's argument for the many world's interpretation, just as it borrows Korzybski's map-territory distinction.

I know who Deutsch is, and I'd never even heard that he had a movement around him.

Which is relevant.  I've had my ear to the ground for interesting rationality training since, oh, 1975 or so, and I definitely run in the right circles to pick up rumors of stuff like this.  The fact that your report is my first sign for that crew is from my POV pretty good evidence that its impact was very, very low.

I also question some of your other premises.  Speaking as a person who approaches the Yudkowskian reform from a perspective formed by a previous rationality movement, I don't think it has all that much difficulty communicating with outsiders at all, certainly not compared to the culture around General Semantics.  To the extent it does: well, science is hard.  There's not much point in trying to pitch the Sequences to people much below the American mean IQ level, at least not before our tutorial techniques get a lot better than they are now. 

Nor, speaking as a person with considerable subject-matter expertise in epistemology, do I think this movement has a particularly "immodest" epistemology.  If one doesn't think one's theory knowledge can explain the justification of knowledge in very broad generality, there's not much point in maintaining it at all, is there?

Speaking as a semi-outsider, it's not clear to me that this community has mandatory writings at all. Yes, a lot of us have read parts of the Sequences, if not all (I'm not-all myself) but I see no sign that one's in-groupness depends on having done that.  It's very easy for me to imagine someone fitting into this movement although never having read a word of Yudkowsky, simply by being able to adopt the community's discourse habits and its concerns. 

speaking as a person with considerable subject-matter expertise in epistemology 

How do you know that you're good at knowing? 

I described myself as a subject-matter expert in epistemology.  That means I'm familiar with the branch of philosophy that considers the maintenance and justification of knowledge. and considers different theories of same.

Since you're using the name 'metatroll', I think I'll leave it at that. 

This is an indication of interest in such.

It would definitely be neat to read a history of that sort. Having myself not read many of the books that Eliezer references as forerunners, that area of history is one that I at least would like to learn more about.

I actually have not seen such a bibliography, though I could infer a lot from his language choices in essays like Twelve Virtues.  Can you share a pointer to his list of forerunners?  

I don't expect there is much on it that will surprise me, but I would very much like to read it nevertheless.

Here’s a few quick links where Eliezer talks about books that influenced him, or makes book recommendations. This isn’t a precise response to the initial prompt of ‘forerunners’, just what turned up when I searched for Eliezer talking about books he‘s read and recommends.

  • For rationality reading, he lists some books in a comment here. Standout books were E.T. Jaynes’ “Probability Theory: The Logic of Science”, Judea Pearl’s “Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems”, and the collected papers of Kahneman & Tversky (and colleagues). He further mentions his feelings on Jaynes here.
  • Eliezer has a (pretty old) bookshelf here of books that had a fair bit of impact on him (which he wrote when he was 20, so a whole decade before LW). He also lists “Good Idealistic Books” that he read in his youth.
  • Eliezer has talked about rationalist fiction he has read in the past here. In this post he mentions that he was heavily influenced by his parents collection of old science fiction. Recently on Twitter he listed more.

Now I'm laughing, because looking through those explicit lists I am finding pretty much all of the two dozen or so sources I expected to find based on various hints and callbacks. Almost all of them books very familiar to me as well.

Yes, this essay is going to be fun to write.

Just a note of thanks, for the essay (which I skimmed, and will read more thoroughly when I have more time), but more for all of your writing (and direct activity) regarding hacker culture.  

I hadn't really made the connection in my mind between the different domains of rational/skeptical/hacker thought until this - I'm between you and Eliezer in age, and have considered myself a hacker since the mid-80s, having read a different subset of historical thought - light on philosophy, very heavy on the SF that everyone references, but also Knuth and Hofstadter and Dijkstra which mixed philosophy of thinking with rigor of procedural execution.  

Anyway, thanks for this!  And for any other readers who aren't familiar with your work, check out the Rootless Root at http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/unix-koans/

Since you've mentioned Rootless Root, I will say that there is another essay I am now thinking of writing about the playful use of Zen tropes.  The rationalist community and the hacker culture both have strong traditions of this sort of play...but, the functional reasons for the tradition are not the same!  And the way they differ is interesting.

That's enough of a teaser for now. :-)

I have a draft I'm fairly pleased with.  Has gone out to some beta readers.