Recommended reading for new rationalists

This has been discussed in passing several times, but I thought it might be worthwhile to collect a list of recommended reading for new members and/or aspiring rationalists. There's probably going to be plenty of overlap with the SingInst reading list, but I think the purposes of the two are sufficiently distinct that a separate list is appropriate.

Some requests:

  • A list of blog posts can be collected at another point in spacetime; for now, please stick to books, book sections, or essays1.
  • Please post a single suggestion per comment, so upvoting can determine the final list for the eternal fame of wikihood.
  • Please limit yourself to no more than 3-5 suggestions. We could probably all think of dozens, try and think what would actually be the best for the purposes of this site.
  • Please only suggest an entry if you've read it. Judgement Under Uncertainty, while certain to make the list, should be put there by someone who has invested the time and waded through it (i.e. someone other than me).
  • Please say why you're suggesting it. What did you learn from it? What is its specific relevance to rationality? (ETA)

 Happy posting!

PS - Is there a "New Readers Start Here" page, or something similar (aside from "About")? I seem to remember someone talking about one, but I can't find it.

1"Everything Eliezer has ever written (since 2001)... twice!" while likely a highly beneficial suggestion for every single human being in existence, is not an acceptable entry. A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation is fine. If you're not sure whether to classify something as "an essay" or "a blog post", there is a little-known trick to distinguish the two: essays contain small nuggets of vanadium ore, and blog posts contain shreds of palladium. Alternatively, just use your best judgement.

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I'd like to add to the list of requests:

  • Please say why you're suggesting it. What did you learn from it? What is its specific relevance to rationality?

A link to a page of Amazon reviews written by Everyman to Everyman doesn't have the same value as a comment from one of us to the rest of us.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

Influence is a great book for new rationalists because it highlights a lot of cognitive biases with real-life examples derived from case studies. These examples are placed in the context of how the so-called 'compliance professionals' explout these biases to persuade people, who might otherwise be not so forthcoming.

And when you're finished, this Anki deck I made should help you retain the important parts.

There seem to be few reviews of this book, and almost no citations to it in Google Scholar. I found one review at Quoting from it:

He uses a concept which he calls a subjunctive relation, which is intermediate between a causal relation and a correlation, to explain why a choice that seems to happen after its goal has been achieved can be rational. That is the part of his argument that I find unconvincing. The subjunctive relation behaves a lot like a causal relation, and I can’t figure out why it should be treated as more than a correlation unless it’s equivalent to a causal relation.

I'm having trouble understanding it too. And it concerns me that neither the evidentialist camp nor the causalist camp seem to see a need to rebut or comment on Drescher's ideas.

Also, chapter 7, "Deriving Ought From Is", doesn't take into account an important difference between Newcomb's Problem and One-Shot Prisoner's Dilemma that I pointed out at I think this is a fatal flaw for Drescher's argument.

Thank you for these comments. I've been meaning to go through Drescher with a fine-toothed comb and write a review, but I'll probably never have time.

A simply flabberghasting defence of non-nihilistic materialism. This is the book I know that deals with the highest proportion of topics of general interest here; as the title claims, it really does span from physics to ethics. It is an absolute delight, and a wonderful example of how far clear thinking can take one in dispelling confusion.

I'm now in the middle of chapter 3, a really interesting demystification of Loschmidt's paradox (though it does not mention it by name), which is the question of how there can be an apparent "direction" to time in a universe with time-symmetric physics.

Like in my previous comment, I'm a bit frustrated that Drescher avoids introducing standard terminology when making his point. For example, he's using the concept of mutual information in his explanation, but he goes to great lengths to avoid using the term, even though it would make his explanation easier to follow and connect to existing literature.

Still satisfied though. I think I'll write a review and summary for LW.

Thanks. I see you already saw my other comment with the expanded verion, but for those who can't wait for the expanded and polished version, go here.

"And it concerns me that neither the evidentialist camp nor the causalist camp seem to see a need to rebut or comment on Drescher's ideas."

Doesn't concern me in even the tiniest, most infinitesimal amount. Remind me to post on the rationalist virtue of zs'hanh at some point.

Difference between PD and one-shot Newcomb: Agree the incentives are different; agree that the logical structure of the problem is potentially more complicated because of that; suggest that the decision to expend cognitive resources searching for a way to defect could be treated as a defection or a probabilistic defection itself.

Drescher on subjunctives - I agree, this strikes me more as Drescher trying to make partial progress toward a solution than presenting something well-defined in a logical sense. I'm not sure Drescher would disagree with that.

I've spoken to Drescher at length and I think he's trying to derive way too much "ought" from TDT, to the point of thinking TDT yields morality itself.

That said, "Good and Real" is still the reductionist book for now.

Doesn't concern me in even the tiniest, most infinitesimal amount. Remind me to post on the rationalist virtue of zs'hanh at some point.

According to the provided link, zs'hanh means "contemptuous indifference to the activity of others". I'm not sure how that's supposed to apply here, since the entire subject of discussion is the activity of others (namely, Gary Drescher's writings).

If what you mean is that I should have tried to evaluate his ideas on the object level instead of depending on the opinion of others, I did say that I was unable to make sense of his subjunctive relation. Given that, it doesn't seem wrong to check if anyone else could make sense of it and be concerned that no one apparently could.

Drescher on subjunctives - I agree, this strikes me more as Drescher trying to make partial progress toward a solution than presenting something well-defined in a logical sense. I'm not sure Drescher would disagree with that.

He has told me that he now regards the decision theory approach in "Good and Real" (as well as the newer "meta-circular" approach) as inadequate and has recently been "rebooting" his thinking in order to try to find the right approach from a fresh perspective. (He seems to think that UDT is more promising but may not be the right approach either.)

According to the provided link, zs'hanh means "contemptuous indifference to the activity of others". I'm not sure how that's supposed to apply here, since the entire subject of discussion is the activity of others (namely, Gary Drescher's writings).

Not those others.

You'll have to write that post and explain what heuristics you use to decide who to pay attention to. I think I'm actually relatively good at this (for example I've been following your career ever since "Staring into the Singularity" :) but I wasn't particularly impressed with Drescher until I met him in person.

I just finished reading it a few weeks ago; when I reached the end, I wondered whether Drescher should sue all of us for intellectual plagiarism, or the other way around!

A simply flabberghasting defence of non-nihilistic materialism.

non-nihilistic materialism? You must be reading the ending differently from me; I found one of the most interesting parts his attempt to argue that existence is a useless concept and that other possible universes are just as real.

The reasonable interpretation; he could've said instead 'non-solipsistic materialism' or something.

But then, I'm not sure whether denying that existing, well, exists, is nihilism or solipsism (in European philosophy, nihilism is usually with regard to ethics, but in Buddhist philosophy, nihilism is often the word used to translate positions claiming that nothing whatsoever exists, not even perceptions or the atoms/'karmas' of the Hinayanists).

The word nihilism can be attached to different adjectives to explain what is being denied. Thus there is ethical nihilism, existential nihilism, epistemological nihilism, metaphysical nihilism etc. By itself it is usually taken to refer to ethical or existential nihilism (that there is no purpose to life).

I was just reading chapter 2 (which I did not get online and which I won't tell you how to get online if you private message me by clicking on my name and then the "send message" button), and I was pleasantly surprised to find that in pages 51 through 59, Drescher makes a more elaborate version of the point I made here although, frustratingly, without using the term "isomorphism".

Someone put it online. Don't message me asking for the location. That would be piracy, wouldn't it?

Personally I'm not very impressed with this book. Maybe it's because by the time I read it I already knew too much, but I found it of little use other than to run over the groves in my mind of the most basic aspects of evolution. Maybe it's best for someone who is coming from a strong religious background and needs a starter to break the religion from their mind?

Maybe it's best for someone who is coming from a strong religious background and needs a starter to break the religion from their mind?

I doubt that their epistemology will let them accept the "fact" that life, including them, can be reduced to molecular interactions. I once exposed an extreme irrationalist / theist to evolutionary ideas, and he said to me that all evolutionists, Dawkins being the prime example, are sponsored by The Enemy -- and he meant "sponsored" in a literal sense, by paying money.

(On the other hand, I succeeded in converting one of my programmers into Evolutianity, but he was a pretty smart and rational guy in the first place, perhaps just a bit new-agey).

I think the Selfish Gene and other popular (but technically accurate) introductions to evolution are best for fence-sitters, not for strongly religious people. And I feel that there's a lot of fence-sitters among religious people these days.

One of my favorite books, but do you think it's appropriate for this list?

In my case, The Selfish Gene was absolutely essential. Its impact on me was enormous -- I spent a couple of years just to update myself after reading it. This book is the primary cause of my interest in AGI, FAI, naturalism, reductionism, science and rationality -- I definitely think it should be on the list.

Added: There may be another important effect to this book. When I was reading it, I had a strong feeling that this book is capable of utterly destroying religious and other non-naturalistic worldviews in readers who can reason more or less straight -- and that without explicitly mentioning religion or any gods at all. I never was a theist, but since religion keeps popping up here on LW, it apparently still is an important issue -- which is another reason why I support keeping the book on this list.

I fully agree with your statement. The Selfish Gene triggered my rational awakening and may have been the single most important book I've read in my entire life. I think the real significance of this book is that afterwards you really have a rather deep understanding of what life actually is and what it isn't.

Now most readers here won't need to read his book for that purpose, but I think it is a very unique book one should read eventually, even despite already being a rationalist. There most certainly are more structured books out there if one wanted to learn about evolution systematically, but it may still be the best "popular science" book out there to truly trash the notion of group selection, while it simultaneously nails the point that your genes aren't the means by which you propagate yourself, but that you are the means by which your genes propagate themselves - even at the cost of your well-being (which is of cause also just another psychological mechanism to get you into the human meat-market).

So despite being the pinnacle of evolution in terms of intelligence, we are still nothing but a disposable vehicle from the indifferent "viewpoint" of our genes. This realization obviously has the potential to rock your worldview to the very core, if you're completely oblivious to the real implications of evolution.

Despite being a citizen of Germany, where evolution is strictly part of the curriculum - evolution (and above all its implications) still weren't "properly" taught to me. This book was a goldmine of insight aiding in my intellectual development. Also it's where the term memetics was first coined.

If you're already a rationalist, it's not obligatory literature. But it sure as hell is literature you'd better digest sooner rather than later, if you're actually not that well-read regarding evolution.

A few years ago I had read most of Dawkins' other books, but had not yet read Selfish Gene.

I keep a list of books I want to read, and when they become available at the library, I go pick them up. Selfish Gene and a fiction book I had wanted to read were both became available at the same time, so I walked to the library and thought I'd flip a coin to decide which one to get (I allowed myself only one book to read for pleasure at a time when I was in school).

On the way there, I was accosted by a very aggressive evangeical Christian. He very earnestly told me about Jesus and how I needed to be saved, and demanded I explain how I thought I could explain the world without god. I made a few comments about evolution, which he shrugged off, since they didn't explain the origin of life. Eventually I told him I was wasting his time and went into the library.

The experience shook me up a bit, but then my choice of reading was clear. I had to get the Selfish Gene.

Not sure what exactly should count as appropriate, I had assumed that the votes would sort the good from the bad, but maybe people would be less inclined to downvote a book they liked, which could be a problem with a well-liked book.

Is it enough that these comments could serve as a warning, or do you suggest I delete/edit the post?

Yeah, I was thinking that it could turn into a popularity contest. There's certainly no way I would ever downvote this book.

Instead of deleting it, why don't you make a case for its inclusion? Vladmir's off to a good start.

I think, to really think about human rationality and irrationality, you need to be able to consider the mind from an evolutionary perspective. Is there a better introduction to evolutionary thinking out there?

I can only add it was very influential for me. I read this and The Extended Phenotype in succession and while I certainly understood evolution before reading them, I certainly understood it on a whole new level afterwards.

For deep understanding of how computers and especially computation works: "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs"

(available freely online:

I voted this up because it's a very good book, but I want to add a little disclaimer:

SICP is a book on how to write programs. It is not, as one might think from the title, a theoretical book. It is accessible to people who have never programmed, but it will not be liked by people who dislike the actual activity of programming.

I have found that many people hate to program, and most who try it discover they hate it.

Could you elaborate?

I expect that it has a very different success rate than other books; that a binary variable of "likes programming" is not the best model. That more analytical people are more like to learn programming from it than from other sources, and less analytical people the opposite. But I suppose "learn programming from it" and "like it" may be independent.

Excellent point.

SCIP is as far as you can get from 'Learn X in 24 hours'. It's about real thinking about a problem, and then coming up with some elegant solution.

A lot of 'real-world' programming is about programming in an as quick-and-dirty fashion as you can get away with. This book is most definitely not for that -- and is as irrelevant for rationalists as astrology.

This book, however, is about thinking, in terms of computation. And the reason for mentioning it here for 'rationalist purposes' is that I think that viewing the world in computational terms bring valuable insight, just like e.g. an evolutionary viewpoint does, or a bayesian.

"and is as irrelevant for rationalists as astrology."

Do you mean quick-and-dirty programming or this book?

I can't tell whether I don't understand you, you don't understand me, or both.

I suppose it's theoretically possible for someone who hates programming to enjoy a book on how to program, but I don't think it will happen. I don't see what being analytical has to do with it.

If you don't hate programming, you might or might not like SICP for a whole bunch of reasons. How analytical you are might be one of them.

i actually agree with the points you made, and also with the point that Douglas_Knight made. I don't think those points are incompatible.

The nature of Scheme as a 'idealized' programming language enables one to focus on the actual problem rather than the language (after some practice at least). And that way of looking at problems is what makes it interesting in the context of LW -- which is not about programming perse after all.

So yes, the book teaches you to program -- but also yes, it does that in a somewhat abstracted way, which will be less interesting for people who want cookbook-style solutions. It's about training the mind.

An obvious one is Richard Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science", which is published in the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! but can be found online pretty easily.

Edit: The reason why it's a good read is because - all due respect to Randall Munroe - science really does require a lot more than "let's try it and see". That's the basic idea which got the whole exercise started, but we've learned a lot as scientists since then, and Feynman explains a lot.

(Incidentally, the entire book - Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) - is a fun read, although somewhat less focused on rationality as a whole.)

Hofstadter & Dennet - "The Mind's I"

Series of essays on self, AI, consciousness, intelligence, ... with Dennet and Hofstadter commenting them. It gives an excellent introduction in the subjects, and a lot of food for thought.

Long time ago since I read that. Maybe I should re-read it and see if it's as good as I can remember...

I read it last year (for the first time) and enjoyed it thoroughly. It has some classic articles from the field, which if you haven't read already, you should when they're all in one place.

If you've never read Dennett's Where Am I, you shoud click the link and do so now.

If you've never read Dennett's Where Am I, you shoud click the link and do so now.

There is also a video: part1, part2, part3.

Wow, good find. It's so cheesy it's effective...

That is an absolutely amazing piece of writing by mr Dennett! Thanks.

I'd have to add just about everything else by Hofstadter, especially Gödel, Escher, Bach.

But I must add: exceptions are his I am a Strange Loop (terrible, redundant, and maudlin), and his Fluid Analogies (uninteresting to anyone not trying to code up a Copycat).

So basically, in order: GEB, Le Ton beau de Marot, and Metamagical Themas.

EDIT: correct LTDBM spelling; I was going from memory, and clearly I didn't remember the right order & capitalization.

"Le Ton beau de Marot". (Not only does the meaning get scrambled with "ton" and "de" swapped, but Hofstadter's pun gets destroyed too.)

I gather his translation of Eugene Onegin is pretty wretched too.

Okay, I have to ask: what exactly is so great about GEB? I see it get highly praised, and Eliezer_Yudkowsky goes overboard with praise for it, but I don't understand what's so great. (Yes, the page warns the content may be obsolete, but I think he still stands by that part.)

I've read almost all of it, and while it was enjoyable reading, I don't understand how it's useful as rationalist reading, or for AI. It's just a bunch of neat observations strung together, and a long (but helpful) explanation of Goedel's Theorem. In talking about AI, all I found were ideas that seem quaint now and were bad ideas even at the time, like using semantic nets to attempt to solve visual analogy problems. (ETA: There's also no mention of Bayesian inference or anything like it.)

So, could anyone who agrees with this recommendation, please explain what is good about GEB from a rationalist or AI perspective? Be as specific as you can.

GEB is basically a very interesting textbook on formal logic that doesn't read like a textbook.

It's a good book to introduce people to a reductionist perspective on consciousness.

Then it's waaaaaay too long to use as an introduction! In any case, I don't feel I gained in any insight on that topic after reading it.

Agreed. I found it entertaining fluff (but I was familiar with mathematical logic already). What do those who rate it highly here see in it?

I didn't rate it, but I think it should be on any aspiring intellectual's to-be-eventually-read list. It's so flipping clever!

Metamagical Themas, Hofstadter's collection of Scientific American columns, might be slightly better for rationalist reading. It's thick, but you can pick and choose what columns to read. And there's sections on rationality and game theory that would be titillating to any beginner.

Now that I will have to agree with you on, but only because the essays are self-contained so you can just read the good stuff. Among other things, here's what's relevant to rationality and AI:

-The discussion on typography, which I found very interesting. Hofstadter makes a good case that general character recognition is AI-complete. ("The central problem of AI is 'What is "A" and what is "I"?'")

-The three-part intro to Lisp, which gives you a good and short (though IMHO too gushing) intro to what's useful about Lisp.

-A great discussion on analogies that starts from "Who is the First Lady (president's wife) of England, if the prime minister is Margaret Thatcher (a woman)?" That's useful for understanding intelligence.

There is an article that explains how perfectly rational people should play a game while realizing the other people are also perfectly rational. You can see some of it on Google Books and an overview at Wikipedia.

Wikipedia - Superrationality has an explanation of his take on the Prisoner's Dilemma.

It's a great book overall, but I did skip a few articles.

I read it when I was 15 and it was quite right for a mathematically inclined youth. At that age it is a good math, logic, rationality introduction and mind opener.

I would say that GEB gets so much praise because it was an early (perhaps the first) book published that explained some mathematical results that had become important because computers made it possible to see them in action. Aside from that, it's just a fun read and especially good for someone coming to this who doesn't have a strong mathematics background who may need an accessible push to overcome whatever has kept them from learning the math they will need to understand the technical details of the Way.

I finished reading GEB a couple days ago and agree with your assessment. It didn't expand my mind, though it does have a lot of neat puns. But now I understand where Eliezer got his explanatory style and most of his topic set :-)

The Simple Truth seems like another Yudkowsky essay worthy of reading.

Edit: The primary reason to peruse it is to get an understanding of why people like the correspondence theory of truth, as well as to show off a lot of the confusions people have when they try to refute - or even support - the theory.

Greg Egan's Axiomatic).

This is his first collection of short stories. Half of them are fictional explorations of what it would really be like, for the mind to be literally a physical process of the brain, usually with some near-future technology thrown in to sharpen the issues. The title story is about choosing your own utility function, "Learning To Be Me" is Philosophy of Uploading 101, "A Kidnapping" is about stealing a copy of someone's upload, and the others look at other aspects. "Seeing" uses no future science, only present-day knowledge, but is still squarely a science fiction story -- the science just happens to be already here.

Another strong theme is ethics, and especially the ethical issues that arise from our greater physical understanding of what people are: "Blood Sisters", "The Cutie", "Appropriate Love", "The Moat", "The Moral Virologist", and again "Axiomatic".

"The Hundred Light-Year Diary" is about predestination and free will, a theme that appears in several of the other stories. "Whatever the unchangeable future holds, I'm sure of one thing: who I am is still a part of what always has, and always will, decide it." (A theme of Eliezer's on occasion.)

One story is about the many-worlds theory, and another is about the exponential probability distribution.

After which you can read his second short story collection).

Just want to say though to watch out for "The Cutie"... that one, well... *Shudders*

From what I remember of reading it, well, that one really really disturbed me in a "this probably gave me nightmares which I don't remember" sense

maybe a separate list for fiction with rationalist themes would be a good idea?

there are the obvious problems with fiction for learning things (the rules of a fictional world may not apply the one we live in), but I'd be very interested in hearing recommendations, if only because because i suspect that there is some correlation between being an LW-reader and the books we'd like.

One story is about the many-worlds theory

"The Infinite Assassin" (which you must be referencing) involves a fanciful multiverse, not the many-worlds of actually existing quantum mechanics. Although as long as we're talking about Greg Egan and the MWI, I am obligated to drop a link to "Singleton."

I've tried putting together a list on Goodreads of books recommended on Less Wrong, but it will only be as good as the people who contribute to it.

Satan, Cantor, and Infinity by Raymond Smullyan

Smullyan's books are the best introductions to formal logic I know. They are witty, entertaining, and make you think - without it being work.

If anyone has any kids who might be interested in logic, I highly recommend his puzzle books. They might be fun for adults too, but I can't be sure of that, as I haven't looked at them for quite a few years -- back then, though, I found them very accessible and they hooked me.

Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It's a great story, but there's one scene in it that permanently changed my understanding of rationality: Leo Graf's first lecture to the engineering class where he discusses the relationship between engineering and ethics. The argument applies to all science and ways of applying scientific knowledge - really, to any and all attempts to interact with reality.

I'm just rereading it due to your mention, and I found this passage at the point where Leo Graf is beginning to realize What Needs To Be Done:

[...] “How the hell should I know? At that point, it becomes Orient IV’s problem. There's only so much one human being can do, Leo.”

Leo smiled slowly, in grim numbness. “I’m not sure . . . what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.”

This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never needed like this before. . . .

Ignoring the religious content, for me-now this seems to be another occurrence of the idea that the universe is not adjusted to your skill level, and Graf is realizing he needs (to satisfy his morality) to do the impossible.

Bujold sometimes appears to argue for theism, but a very peculiar form of it that doesn't really match what most people mean by the term.

In some ways she seems to be a theological consequentialist - suggesting that people are better for believing that other people have souls, or at least acting as though they believe that other people have souls, regardless of whether it's literally true.

Cordelia Vorkosigan's religious beliefs are rather... odd. This is particularly clear in one exchange from Mirror Dance:

It's important that someone celebrate our existence... People are the only mirror we have to see ourselves in. The domain of all meaning. All virtue, all evil, are contained only in people. There is none in the universe at large.

Cordelia claims to be a theist. How can that claim be reconciled with her statement above?

Good recommendation. I enjoyed that one, even though I had already ready most of its source material and didn't really learn much new from it.

Same here. There's not much to it, and it was all stuff I'd seen somewhere else already, but it's a very friendly and readable book that I've used as a first recommendation for people interested in the ideas, and it's been well-received in that capacity.

Iff you've purchased the original version of the book, you can get the four extra chapters from the new edition by emailing the very awesome Dan Ariely at

"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by TS. Kuhn.

Enormously influential book length essay about how science progresses. Kuhn describes the idea of "normal science" - the everyday activities by which scientists take incremental steps forward. For normal science to be fruitful, it must be carried out within the context of a paradigm - a theoretical framework and set of shared commitments held by a scientific community. If no paradigm exists, or if the current paradigm is flawed, the incremental steps add up to nothing and no progress is made.

This idea is important for anyone interested in doing AI research. AI is a field without a paradigm: hundreds of papers are published every year, but do little to advance our understanding. Every serious AI researcher must confront the deep conceptual problems of the field; he must begin by articulating his own paradigm. There is little point in continuing along in the same style of research carried out by our predecessors: it leads only to esoteric branches of applied mathematics and engineering projects of questionable utility.

"Intelligence without Reason", "Intelligence without Representation", and "Elephants Don't Play Chess" by Rodney Brooks.

In my view Brooks made the most serious attempt to define a paradigm for AI research. Brooks decried the AI research of the 80s as being plagued by "puzzlitis" - researchers would cook up their own puzzles, and then invent AI systems to solve those problems (often not very well). But why are those problems (e.g. chess) important? Do they really advance our understanding of intelligence? What criterion can be used to decide if a theorem or algorithm is a contribution to AI? Is a string search algorithm a contribution to AI? What about a proof of the four-color theorem?

Brooks made the following bold suggestion: define the problems of relevance to AI to be those problems that real agents encounter in the real world. Thus, to do AI, one builds robots, puts them in the world, and observes the problems they encounter. Then one attempts to solve those real world problems.

Now, I consider this paradigm-proposal to be flawed in many ways. But at least it's something - it provides a clean definition, and a path by which normal science can proceed.

(A line from "The Big Lebowski" comes to mind: "Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos!")

I like this one because it embodies the goal of the Way, albeit limited to the scope of games.

Understanding Uncertainty, by Dennis V. Lindley.

It's a friendly and practical introduction to the bare minimum the author thinks everybody should understand of probability and decision theory as they pertain to uncertainty and reasoning under uncertainty.

I'm not sure this is a good choice. From what I recall there are a lot of details that are wrong in here. Anyone who's read it more recently? Can you fill us in?

I read this last year. It contained many of the important insights from ev. psych, especially in the area of mating strategies. It was far too wordy and long to justify its informational content. Robert Wright snagged most of the ideas from scientists, but he is a journalist, so he tends to mangle concepts and play up spurious "angles" of the "story." This was the most tedious thing I've read on the subject. Pinker is somewhat better.

It's a good and enjoyable book for a beginner who's unfamiliar with (and perhaps skeptical of) evolutionary psychology; there are of course higher rungs on the ladder of ev-psych books.

What sort of mistakes did you see in it?

Before you pick up anything in this thread you would be well advised to peruse How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This is doubly recommended if reading is one of your primary ways of acquiring knowledge.

The book was published some time ago, but books, and the reading habits associated with them, haven't changed all that much. The authors make the point that most people, even college graduates, read at an elementary level, and that many educational institutions make no effort to improve this. Elementary reading is characterized by a passive and linear approach to reading, and often mistaken assumption about the process, such as that knowledge contained within a book will somehow be retained after a first superficial exposure. The authors introduce more advanced techniques of analytical and active reading, and offer interesting ideas regarding reading material of all kind—though unfortunately the book was written before the internet era—with a major focus on expository works.

Actually, there are many things in this book that I disagree with, and others that I suspect are just downright wrong. But I'm not aware of anything better on the subject, and the most important thing is that it will get a reader thinking about an act that most of us spend very little time reflecting on, despite the fact that we constantly engage in it.

How to mark a book is a short article by Adler that may give you a taste of what to expect.

Reaching the specified limit: The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge by William Poundstone.

This is another book which comes at things from lots of angles - it talks about Conway's Life, Maxwell's Demon (in several variations), self-reproduction ... it clears up a number of apparent paradoxes in an engaging and understandable way and explains a lot of really cool concepts on the way to understanding how patterns can arise from noise.

The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase--I haven't reread it since I was a teenager, so this is a little tentative, but it's an introduction to General Semantics, and having it hammered that the word is not the thing, and it's not just that there are exceptions, but the thing behind the word changes over time, were both very worthwhile for me to learn.

By the way, if your idea of General Semantics comes from van Vogt, that's a case of the word really not being the thing.

And why isn't my html working?

I found Drive Yourself Sane useful for similar reasons.

I've been meaning to take a stab at Korzybski's Science and Sanity (available on the interwebs, I believe) for a while, but I've heard it's fairly impenetrable.

I've been meaning to take a stab at Korzybski's Science and Sanity (available on the interwebs, I believe) for a while, but I've heard it's fairly impenetrable.

Available here.

I had the experience, which I heard others have also had, that it was impenetrably turgid on a first reading, but perfectly clear on coming back to it a few years later. Still just as turgid, but clear. The science is also very dated. I have mixed thoughts about recommending it. It's a bit like recommending E.E. "Doc" Smith as an introduction to science fiction. Necessary to read at some point, but not at the outset.

I'd be interested to see what anyone else who has read it thinks.

ETA: Just flicking through the online copy I found one place where the science is, I think, wrong even with respect to the knowledge of the time. "A molecule of water is broken up [by an electric current] into a positively charged hydrogen ion consisting of two hydrogen atoms, and a negatively charged oxygen ion consisting of one oxygen atom." (chap. XL, p.686)

It's not HTML. Click the "Edit" button and then click the "Help" link under the text box - links are formatted left-square-bracket link text right-square-bracket open-parenthesis link URL close-parenthesis, and italics is indicated by asterisk text asterisk.

Cool! Although the link seems to be broken (the final 7 was deleted from the number)... :P

Heuristics and Biases, collection edited by Daniel Kahneman, Thomas Gilovich and Dale Griffin

It's an excellent series of papers and an interesting read, but ISTM there's not much of a take-away for practicing rationality compared to what you get in the posts here. It's written to demonstrate a mountain of experimental evidence for irrationality (and to meet academic standards), not to help readers see their own patterns of thought more clearly.

A belated, supernumerary entry (many thanks to taw's recent post for inspiration): How to Lie with Statistics. It is, in essence, a catalog of Dark Arts (and common mistakes) in that field, with some closing remarks on defenses against them.

While I no longer agree with Heinlein's characterisation of people who cannot grasp mathematics, I do think mathematics is a good thing to know. But on occasions when I have tried to explain what mathematics is all about, or to recommend a book which might do the job, I find myself at a loss. "Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction" didn't do it for one person I suggested it to. Does anyone else have suggestions, especially suggestions that worked for themselves or others?

I generally like the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford, though I wish they were less chatty and historical and more focused on education.

This is not so much a recommendation as a request. Recently I stumbled on my well-thumbed copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was given to me when I was pretty young, and was, by and large, the first real book about science I ever read. It covers a great range of topics, from evolution and planetary chemistry to astrophysics and relativity, provides comprehensive historical background, and is written in a very personable style. It led me to Sagan's other work, which led to a broader interest in science and, along with a textbook on modern philosophical thought I chanced upon, sparked my own intellectual revolution that lifted me out of a deeply conservative religious upbringing. The notion of the Cosmic Calendar had a particularly electrifying effect on a boy who had been raised to believe the universe was merely a few thousand years old. The book, of course, was based on Sagan's television series of the same name. It's still an excellent read, and it's a joy to know that some of Sagan's dreams for the future, like that of a roving Mars lander*, have been fulfilled.

However, that illustrates the problem: Cosmos will be 30 years old next year. The number of discoveries, innovations and explorations that have been made since it was published is staggering. While a great deal of the book is still valid, many new chapters could be written. While there are certainly many good books on science being published today, few authors have the range and familiar writing ability of Sagan. While I would still want to be given Cosmos if I were growing up today, I would find much of it out-dated. What other book or books published recently could serve a similar purpose? That is, what modern book would you give someone with little scientific background if you wanted to expand their horizons not just to this or that field but to a great breadth of knowledge?

The beauty of Cosmos, I found, was that while it did not offer comprehensive knowledge of any one subject, it prompted interest in a great many. Furthermore, it was a textbook not written like one. Sagan's informal style made science accessible without insulting his audience's intelligence. Like the television show, it was almost as though he was tricking people into learning without dumbing down any of the material.

The popular equivalent these days (as in, non-fiction books by scientists that climb the bestseller lists) seem to be more philosophically oriented books like Dawkin's The God Delusion. That's all well and good, but what are the popular books on general sciences, books that reach a wide audience and encourage scientific thinking among the general public?

*Although his prediction that images from the lander would be delivered daily to the television sets of millions of enthralled viewers was unfortunately misguided.

PS - Is there a "New Readers Start Here" page, or something similar (aside from "About")? I seem to remember someone talking about one, but I can't find it.

Here's the welcome thread.

This reading list isn't explicitly for our purpose, but many of the books would be appropriate (several are already recommended here). To pick one off the list that I have read: Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained is largely an exercise in speculation, but impressive for its density of reference to scientific literature of the time. If nothing else, it's an explicit demonstration of the non-mysteriousness of an all-too-common choice of mysterious phenomena, and the warnings about the Cartesian Theatre are wise to bear in mind.

I am a student, and have recently found this website through a friend. I am intrigued by the art that you are promoting here, and it strikes a chord with my own dedication to learning and becoming a better person. In the past, I have often preferred autodidactic learning; however, this particular subject seems especially dense and in some cases even dangerous if learned incorrectly. I am thus somewhat apprehensive at proceeding along my own course.

What is a good starting point for someone like me? Is there a single grand summary of the work being done here, or some similar statement of purpose and general principles?

I have more time than I need at present, even allowing for various frivolous pursuits and time allocated for social interaction, eating, etc. I have the unique luxury of having a very flexible schedule, and am not close to filling that schedule anytime soon. Therefore, whenever I find something that I am truly interested in, I study it. To do otherwise would be wasteful.

I am truly interested in and committed to becoming a better person through any means necessary; becoming more rational will make me a better person. Thus, I am truly interested in and committed to becoming more rational.

I would begin with some of Eliezer Yudkowsky's essays on rationality, particularly "The Simple Truth", "An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem", and "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation", and then I'd start flipping through the archives reading things that look interesting. Often-times these will have links, either at the top or in the text, to previous essays; jumping backwards through the sequences and then reading forwards back to where you began is a good method.

That's just for stuff on this site, though - I'd certainly read through the other online essays people linked in this post, and keep my eyes open for library copies of some of the books.

Argh! I hate when people do that! If someone's asking what simplestudent is, they generally want something more precise than a giant reading list.

IMHO, the piece with the highest ratio of "what we're all about" to length is Truly Part of You. That should be the starting point.

A lot of people coming from a background of traditional rationality identify themselves as falsificationists, unfortuneately. For an entertaining demolition of the work Popper and his intellectual descendants, see Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists[1] by the inimitable David Stove.

[1]Also known as: Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism and Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult

Do you have an opinion about his essays on sociobiology?

Everyone makes mistakes.

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