NYC Rationalist Community

by Cosmos1 min read29th Mar 201020 comments

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For those who don't yet know, there has been a thriving rationalist community in NYC since April 2009.  We've been holding weekly meetups for the past several months now, and often have game nights, focused discussions, etc.  For those of you who live in the area, and not yet involved, I highly encourage you to join the following two groups:

This Meetup group is our public face, which draws new members to the meetups.

This Google Group was our original method of coordination, and we still use it for private communication.

The reason I am posting this is because there has been interest by several members in sharing an apartment/loft, or even multiple apartments on a floor of a building if there are enough people.  The core interest group is going to be meeting soon to figure out the logistics, so I wanted to extend this opportunity to any aspiring rationalists who either currently or would like to live in NYC.  If you are interested, please join the Google Group and let us know, so that we can include you in the planning process.  Additionally, if anyone has experience living with other rationalists, or more generally in a community setting, please feel free to share your knowledge with us so we can avoid any common pitfalls.

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Additionally, if anyone has experience living with other rationalists

One quirk I've seen at Benton house is that people are much more open and honest about criticisms than your average community. This seems to be a large advantage for the house members thus far, as it's hard to improve yourself if you can't recognize your flaws; however, it's possible that an easily upset or passive-aggressive person might not find the environment comfortable for extended periods.

[-][anonymous]11y 3

I wonder--is living with someone who shares your philosophical viewpoint a good idea? I'm not suggesting that we should all go live with fundamentalists just to be in contact with someone different, but living with someone whose beliefs are a mirror image of your own reeks of confirmation bias (especially if they are actively involved in the rationalist community). I lived with a very religious person for a year, and we managed to get along.

I have similar reservations about the rationalist community as a whole, especially in light of reading about that anti-evolutionist woman being booed at the atheists convention in Australia. As with almost all communities, some level of groupthink seems inevitable. Then again, I've never actually been to a meeting, so I'm only speculating.

I think hesitation and thoughtfulness is probably the correct initial reaction. People frequently pay less attention to situational context and more attention to internal dispositions than is justified*, so making sure that your environment is doing what you want it to do is generally a great idea. There are probably two radically different questions here.

First, there's the question of whether or not you think "rationality" is likely to help you. If you think it is a good idea to take beliefs and theory literally, act on their basis, with updates every time you learn something or mess up so that you are "more effective" in the future, then doing things to become more effective in this sense at a faster rate might be a good thing to try. If it fails, you can always update yourself out of "living according to theory". There are good reasons to think that mostly you'll do stupid things and hurt yourself initially. If any person doesn't think that they'll ultimately benefit from it, then maybe you should pick someone crazy to live with. Or, taking the fear-of-belief seriously, maybe you should simply leave roommate selection to nonreflective impulses?

But if you do think that rationality is something worth actively cultivating, even taking the likely initial costs into account, then the question is more "economic". How much will living with a creationist teach you? How much will living with a schizophrenic person teach you? How much will living with a school teacher teach you? How much will living with a group of committed rationalists teach you? I think the "lessons per day" and perhaps also the "aggregate value of the lessons per day" is likely to be highest if you're in a community that's consciously optimizing itself along that axis.

And yes, groupthink is a potential worry, but if you were (rationally) going to take them seriously you might simply read about it and talk about it and try to develop cultural forms that make it more difficult. For example, someone in the house could take responsibility for giving one third of the house members a groupthink questionaire (see appendix E, D, and A in the link) and keep a chart over time of the scores. Just being mindful enough to do something like this would probably go a long way towards ameliorating the problem. And if there is a problem then the measurement might reveal it and allow it to be squarely addressed.

Some people might think this is a waste of time, and presumably they'd have arguments for why this would or would not be so... but that just gets back to the core question of whether or not people's theories (even our own) can really be trusted to serve as the basis for planning and action.

is living with someone who shares your philosophical viewpoint a good idea?

I don't know if I could live with someone who didn't think that neodeconstructive rationalism evokes the same fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian drives as the classic Greek tragedy.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Haha, I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out what you were talking about before I figured it out.

April Fool's Day aside, though, shouldn't we try to be tolerant of other people's beliefs, at least to the point where we can live happily with someone who doesn't take their religion too seriously? I'm not suggesting that we should respect those beliefs (after all, there is a difference between tolerance and respect), but I am in favor of tolerance.

What was wrong with booing that woman?

Edit: There seems to be some controversy about what the woman was doing. If she was attempting to be confrontational, I don't have a problem with the booing. Obviously if she was just saying she was a theist and asking a dumb question booing is a little harsh.

[-][anonymous]11y 2

I'm guessing that the woman wasn't being disruptive, since PZ Myers (who never ignores a chance to bash his opponents) didn't explicitly say so--he just said that she asked a dumb question. In that case, the booing was extremely inappropriate. However, I see it as indicative of a larger phenomenon: atheists (and perhaps rationalists) developing a sort of group identity. This could very well be a bad thing because group identity often leads to groupthink and rationalization.

Additionally, if anyone has experience living with other rationalists

Benton house in California is an example of many rational people living together. Many people here on LW will have opinions about the pros and cons thereof.

Personally, I found that most people seemed to get on relatively well.

I added myself to the Meetup group. I live about an hour's driving distance from NYC.

Do you happen to be in Central NJ? I remember someone mention being in the vicinity of New Brunswick, but don't recall if it was you.

Yeah, that's me.

Great! I'm in Plainsboro and I'd enjoy meeting you sometime soon, if you're up for it.

I go to the NYC meetings about once a month, but mostly the not-quite public ones --these aren't advertised on Meetup.com. It's for the regulars: game nights, focused discussions, and hang-out times. For example, one of our members recently hosted a poker tutorial (He's a successful gambler works in math-of-gambling.) If you're interested in those kinds of activities too, I'd encourage you to join the Google Group.

What happens at the meetups?

Discussion, mostly ad-hoc. On some occasions the discussion has been more focused it was assumed participants had read certain LW related things.

I attended a meetup in Santa Barbara which I found largely to be a waste of time. The problem there--and I think, frankly, with LW in general--is that there just aren't that many of us with something insightful to say. (I certainly don't have much.) While it's great, I guess, that the participants acknowledge the importance behind some of the ideas championed by Yudkowsky and Hanson, most of us don't have anything to add. Some of us may be experts in other fields, but not in rationality.

Here's the perfect analogy: it's like listening to a bunch of college guys who've never played sports at a high level discuss a professional game; they all repeat the stuff they hear on ESPN, and the discussion isn't wildly wrong, but they're just regurgitating what they hear.

Do you feel like this described the NYC meetup at all? Do you think the meetup was worthwhile?

I always find it worthwhile, but maybe it's not what you are expecting or looking for. It's become a social group, with a slightly intellectual bent. It's not an attempt to recreate LessWrong in-person. The core group really has become a community, as in: make connections, understand each other, communicate, and in certain ways, offer mutual support. I find the discussion almost always stimulating, and even though I only go up once every month.

Q: Generally, what kinds of meetups would you enjoy attending?

Well, there's three kinds of meetups I can imagine.

(1) You go for the intellectual content of the meeting. This is what I was hoping for in Santa Barbara. For the reasons I mentioned above, I now think it's unlikely that the intellectual content will ever be worthwhile unless somebody does some serious planning/preparation.

(2) You go for the social enjoyment of the meeting. I confirmed my suspicion in SB that I personally wouldn't socially mesh with the LW crowd, although maybe this was a small sample size thing.

(3) You go to meet interesting people. In my life I've had a lot of short-term and a few long term friends with whom I've had fun. But I've probably only known 3-4 truly interesting people, in the sense that they challenged my thinking and were pleasing enough to spend a lot of time getting to know well.

Any of the above would get me to go to a meetup, although I'd be most excited about (3).

The NYC group, and olimay in particular, has certainly challenged my thinking. I might be coming from a very different place than you, however.

Sounds cool. I'm from NYC, but no longer live there. I was a member of athiest clubs in college, but I'd bet that post-college (or any, really) rationalists have a hard time meeting others of similar views.