joecorabi

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Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

My name is Joe Corabi. I am a philosophy professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and a longtime friend of Geoff Anders.  I have known Geoff since we were grad students together at Rutgers.  We have also collaborated over the years on a number of philosophical projects, both related to and separate from Leverage Research. 

I have been a volunteer off and on at Leverage since its founding and I wanted to share my experience of Leverage in the hopes that it provides some unique evidence about the organization and its history.  I was troubled by the recent Less Wrong post and I spoke to Geoff about the possibility of writing something that can hopefully provide some additional context for those looking to evaluate the situation. 

I was initially drawn to Leverage by the enthusiasm of its members and Geoff’s vision for the organization.  In my view, which is from someone who has spent over 20 years studying philosophy in an intensive way, Geoff is a highly skilled philosopher who has both an expert knowledge of the field and a sensitivity to methodological concerns, the combination of which is quite rare.  In my view, professional analytic philosophers nowadays often tend to substitute questions that are readily answerable for questions that have deep significance, and they also use methods that encourage small, clever moves in argumentation over insights that will integrate well with a bigger picture of human knowledge and understanding.  I found Geoff to be unique among philosophers I had met in several ways.  Most notably, he was very well steeped in the history of philosophy without, as far as I could tell, succumbing to any tendency to fetishize that history.  He had a broad appreciation for the way that historical philosophers had different methodological approaches for addressing philosophical problems than most current philosophers, and he had a keen awareness of ways that the methods those philosophers employed could lead to improvements in philosophical understanding. I was someone trained in philosophy in a very ahistorical way and Geoff did a fantastic job of answering objections I had to emphasizing the study of historical figures.  He provided me with new approaches for reading historical figures that helped me to get much more out of them.  (I should also mention that I have never found him to be anything but a highly respectful interlocutor who addresses disagreement with charity and a spirit of rational dialogue.  I have never seen him treat anyone else who disagreed in any way different from this. The view of him insinuated in the post—that he was an authoritarian or master manipulator—just does not fit the picture of him I have assembled over the years.)

Based on my conversations with Geoff about philosophy and seeing his own philosophical work, I judged that he was someone who had unusual insights and potentially the ability to lead an organization that would make dramatic improvements to the world.   I started volunteering time with Leverage in whatever ways I could, occasionally visiting their original headquarters in New York City to make presentations and collaborate with Leverage employees.  I continued this practice after the organization moved to California. 

The projects I have volunteered for with Leverage have been diverse.  My involvement with the organization has waxed and waned over the years depending on my other commitments and on my sense of where my efforts would be most valuable.  I have had many positive experiences with Leverage—times when I felt that I was learning about theories and even whole fields that I knew little about and which seemed to promise significant insights.  At other times, I had the sense that there were aspects of Leverage that reproduced things that I did not like about academia.  For example, in one case, I spent significant time on a research project on intelligence amplification, submitted it, then felt that it got filed away without ever having much impact or even getting read by hardly anyone.  (It turns out that I may have been wrong about this, but it was my impression at the time.  This is a fear that I and many other academics also have about our published academic work.)  In another case, I pledged to help a Google engineer (who I believe was connected with the rationalist community) with developing an online intelligence testing platform that a number of people at Leverage had an interest in testing and using. The original plan as I understood it was that I would provide significant theoretical consultation, but in the end he had a more or less complete vision for the project (an impressive one honestly) and my role wound up being much more that of a grunt worker. I judged this to be a less valuable use of my time than other potential things I could be doing, so I did not continue with the project beyond the first few months.

In my debriefs with Geoff, I never felt any pressure to volunteer at the organization more than was comfortable for me, and I never felt any pressure to engage in charting or other more cutting-edge experimental techniques that were popular there.  I knew about at least some of these practices (probably most), and Geoff always good-naturedly invited me to try them out if I thought they would be helpful or I was interested in providing feedback on them. I did try some of these things out, particularly charting.  I found the results fairly impressive in my own case.  I was not fully convinced of all the underlying theoretical claims because I felt that there was not yet comprehensive enough evidence and I held some background philosophical positions that were in tension with the approach, but I was certainly impressed and wanted to learn more. 

Although I never felt pressure from Geoff, I also never felt that I was being “shut out” because I did not live in California or dedicate myself full-time to Leverage’s projects.  I found that Geoff was more available for casual conversations and informal brainstorming sessions early in the organization’s history than he was later (where our conversations tended to be shorter and more efficiently focused on official business), but I judged that to be a virtually inevitable consequence of the fact that the organization had ambitious goals and he had many demands on his time.  I always found him to be the same friendly and reasonable person, and I never saw any indication of increasing demand for agreement with him or any official organizational platform.  He was always welcoming to me without being pushy.  Interestingly, I did sometimes have the impression that I was being treated as an underling or subordinate by a couple of early employees (or perhaps volunteers) of Leverage, perhaps because I was not a member of the rationalist community or because I worked only part-time on Leverage-related projects. But those individuals have to the best of my knowledge not been associated with Leverage in any way since at least 2013.  All my other interactions with Leverage employees, while typically brief, have been very positive.

I have not been physically present at Leverage for several years, so I can’t comment on any interpersonal conflicts at the organization or how (or whether) the culture of Leverage 1.0 changed late in its history.  There does seem to be evidence of conflict and dysfunction there towards the end.  I can only reiterate that my own visits over the years were intellectually invigorating. While some of the projects at times seemed a bit hokey to me, much of what happened seemed exciting and was done as far as I could tell in a spirit of open inquiry and sensitivity to evidence. I was always struck by the decentralized feel of the organization when I visited—the fact that there were many different projects going on simultaneously that seemed to be controlled largely by individuals other than Geoff, with visions somewhat different from his.  So it seems especially ironic to me that Geoff has been accused of having an authoritarian presence or of leading some sort of personality cult.  All I can say is that this does not fit at all with my experiences of Leverage.