Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why I find LessWrong fascinating

As it says in the title of the blog, I'm a skeptic.  That is to say, my attitudes and modes of thinking have roots in the modern skeptical movement and community.  The skeptical community is interested in a cluster of ideas, which I roughly illustrate below:

[Image: Skepticism is surrounded by the words Critical Thinking, Science, Anti-Pseudoscience, and Religious Skepticism]

For a variety of reasons, I've moved away from skepticism, more out of disinterest than disagreement.  But I'm still very fond of the value of critical thinking.  I like learning about cognitive biases and fallacies.  I like the idea of judging an argument based on its form rather than on one's prejudices about the particular topic.

In fact, I wouldn't mind if critical thinking were treated with a little more rigor.  The skeptical approach is constrained because it's mostly geared towards countering strange and harmful beliefs of other people.  If there were a little more focus placed on the sloppy thinking within ourselves, we might be able to move beyond mere fallacy-spotting, and hammer down some of the subtler details of rational thought.

The LessWrong community looks like that critical thinking utopia.  LessWrong is the name of a website founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky in 2009, although it more broadly refers to the community that grew around that website.  Yudkowsky had previously gained popularity by writing his "Sequences" on the blog Overcoming Bias, which mostly covered topics in critical thinking.  As the name implies, the Sequences built on each other progressively, enabling them to reach dizzying heights.  So here we have a community based on using critical thinking more rigorously, as a tool for progressive self-improvement.

So I have a bit of an affinity for the LessWrong community.  And in fact, I've read a lot of LessWrong material, including a lot of stuff about decision theory, nearly all of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, plus a scattering of blog posts whenever I get linked.  I'm familiar with a decent amount of LessWrong lingo.

But I don't read LessWrong on any consistent basis, basically because of the major TL;DR factor.  It's all fine and good when I want to read one particular major article that I've been linked, but in general the website is unreadable.  They've embraced the progressive structure of ideas, and so everything is thickly woven with required premises and lingo.  I especially dislike the lingo.  I hate that they either don't know how or don't know when to speak in plain language.  I hate that nearly every neologism is secretly a sci-fi reference.

It's also clear that LessWrong is not just a generic community focused on critical thinking.  Just as skepticism has other components in addition to critical thinking, so does LessWrong:

[Image: LessWrong is surrounded by the words Transhumanism, Critical Thinking, Effective Altruism, and Utilitarianism.  Keeping in mind that I'm not part of this community and may not correctly identify what they consider most important.]

The part that should raise the most eyebrows is transhumanism.  I'm going to get some of these details wrong, but they believe that we will develop artificial intelligence which will be powerful enough to take over the world.  They hope to ensure that the AI will be friendly to humans, rather than antagonistic.  People are encouraged to donate to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which was founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky and is affiliated with LessWrong.

I would not be able to refute any of these claims, and can only express general uncertainty about any specific claims about the future (AI in the future, sure, but beyond that??).  Mostly, I just don't care about transhumanism because I'm too pessimistic about our power to predict anything useful.

And then there are other weird things about LessWrong.  Like the obvious preoccupation with specific intellectual heroes, particularly Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Or the common acceptance of fringe science, like cryonics and cold fusion.  Then there's Roko's Basilisk, although personally I find that more amusing than damning.  I'm more bothered by the neo-reactionaries, a spinoff group from LessWrong.  Neo-reactionaries... advocate for monarchy?  Explicitly believe in discrimination by race?  Due to LessWrong's value system, they're obliged to take it seriously.

I like the idea of LessWrong.  But closer examination just makes me appreciate the more populist aspects of the skeptical movement.  The accessibility of skepticism may have made it a more chaotic crowd, but chaos may be preferable to insularity.


miller said...

RationalWiki is stupid, but at least we know we're stupid. And that realising that you, yourself, are in fact stupid is the necessary first step to being less stupid.

miller said...

Trivialknot, You say:

"A few facts may help you understand this blog, even if they don't say
much about me as a person. I am a graduate physics student studying
high temperature superconductivity. I am male. I am an atheist. I
identify as between asexual and gay (see also: asexuality 101). I also run a group blog on asexuality
(targeted at asexual readers, not people new to the topic). I
participate in skeptical, atheist, gay, and asexual communities offline
as well as online. Sometimes I do activist work, but not very much."

I just want to know, as you identify yourself as an atheist, what is your concept of God?

I hope to exchange views with you on concept(s) of God from my part and from your part.

miller said...

Not really interested