I’ve gotten questions from a couple of different quarters recently about my relationship to the the rationalist community around Less Wrong and related blogs. The one sentence answer is that I consider myself a fellow-traveler and ally of that culture, but not really part of it nor particularly wishing to be.
The rest of this post is a slightly longer development of that answer.
I have aimed since childhood to be what Eliezer Yudkowsky and the LW crowd call a “master-class rationalist”. Eliezer has done some brilliant manifestos and teaching materials towards that end; his The Twelve Virtues of Rationality has become one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. But my history, my major concerns, and my intellectual toolkit are a little different from his, and I’ve been working on trying to think more clearly for many years longer simply because I was born sooner. This produces some differences in style and emphasis.
One major difference is that I learned techniques corresponding to much of the the Less Wrong analytical method from Alfred Korzybski’s discipline of General Semantics, a very long time ago. So, for example, when Eliezer writes of bleggs and rubes … this is old news to any student of GS: humans do abstraction for functional reasons, and all categorization is motivated. Next?
Relative to a typical LW follower, I am much more likely to connect the discipline of rationality to traditional issues in epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and analytical philosophy in general. The LW culture sometimes, to my perception, exhibits patches of enthusiasm and shallowness that would be cured by a bit more knowledge of these fields and historical perspective. This is not a major flaw and it tends to be self-correcting over time, but I notice it.
More generally, my reaction to the LW culture has a touch of “You kids. You’re so cute.” to it. Only that makes it sound like I feel condescending towards them, and I don’t – I tremendously respect the effort and intelligence the “kids” are putting in, even if it sometimes seems a bit naive to someone who was going over similar ground before a good many of them were born.
I think the most revealing thing I can say about my relationship with Eliezer himself is that on the one occasion we’ve been face to face we were completing each others’ sentences within fifteen minutes of first meeting. I believe we have a firm sense of each other as peers and allies, though we’re not in regular contact. We have influenced each other in ways that are not hard for me to identify. I learned from him that it is worthwhile to write short hortatory essays about rationality like Kill the Buddha.
I am not myself particularly concerned with the Friendly AI problem. I think it’s good and necessary that others are working on it, and I’m glad at least one of them is as bright as Eliezer. That makes one less thing for me to worry about.
Some time back I wrote a number of short critiques of various essays by Eliezer. Here it is. It is still representative of what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of the culture around Less Wrong. I will add at this point that the culture feels – perhaps unavoidably – just a touch groupthinky to me. But not dangerously so, and not in my judgment likely to become dangerously so.
For all that I have minor criticisms, they are definitely friendly ones. I am very, very glad that there is a thriving subculture of people trying to learn how to think more clearly. Eliezer gets huge appreciation from me for the effectiveness for which he has made this happen. I feel my best positioning is to stay just a little bit outside it, considered as a social group, and push in the same direction as an ally.