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Good Idealistic Books are Rare

4 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 February 2009 06:41PM

Saith Robin in "Seeking a Cynic's Library":

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides...

Books on education, medicine, government, charity, religion, technology, travel, relationships, etc. mostly present relatively idealistic views, though of course no view is entirely one way or the other.  So one reason the young tend to be idealistic is that most reading material they can easily find and understand is idealistic. 

My impression of this differs somewhat from Robin's (what a surprise).

I think that what we see in most books of the class Robin describes, are official views.  These official views may leave out many unpleasant elements of the story.  But because officialism also tries to signal authority and maturity, it's hardly likely to permit itself any real hope or enthusiasm.  Perhaps an obligatory if formal nod in the direction of some popular good cause, because this is expected of officialdom.  But this is hardly an idealistic voice.

What does a full-blown nonfictional idealism look like?  Some examples that I remember from my own youth:

  • Jerry Pournelle's A Step Farther Out, an idealistic view of space travel and more general technological advancement, and the possibility of rising standards of living as opposed to Ehrlichian gloomsaying.
  • Brown, Keating, Mellinger, Post, Smith, and Tudor's The Incredible Bread Machine, my childhood introduction to traditional capitalist values.
  • Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation (and to a lesser extent Ed Regis's Great Mambo Chicken), my introduction to transhumanism.
  • Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (for traditional rationalist values).

Supposing you wanted your child to grow up an idealist - what nonfiction books like these could you find to give them?  I don't find it easy to think of many - most nonfiction books are not like this.

On the other hand, I suspect that idealistic fiction aimed specifically at children is a far greater cultural force than anything they pick up from their school textbooks.  Textbooks are marketed to adult textbook-selectors; juvenile fiction and children's television are actually aimed at children.

Of course this just implies a chicken-and-egg problem; why do children enjoy idealism more than cynicism?  On this score I would suggest that children in the hunter-gatherer EEA have no chance of successful rebellion, and so haven't yet developed certain emotions that will come into play after puberty.  But children will be actively engaged in absorbing tribal mores during their maturation, and may benefit from signaling such absorption.

Teenagers who act as if they could still get together with their friends and split off to form their own tribe, enjoy cynicism aimed at current authority figures and idealism aimed at their new tribe.

When such forces have petered out, I suggest we are left with a mostly socially-determined adult equilibrium: idealism about some distant subjects is used to signal virtue, cynicism about other distant subjects is used to signal sophistication.

Comments (22)

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Comment author: Psy-Kosh 17 February 2009 06:55:02PM 0 points [-]

Minor quibble: "Jerry Pournelle's A Step Farther Out" ... "(and to a lesser extent Ed Regis's A Step Farther Out)"

I'm assuming the second one was meant to be some other book.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 17 February 2009 07:22:40PM 2 points [-]

Sure if you set the idealistic-enough cut high enough then of course then only a small fraction will make the cut. But if we consider the median non-fiction library book, don't you agree it is more idealistic than cynical?

Comment author: Rolf_Andreassen 17 February 2009 07:45:51PM 2 points [-]

I have a hard time seeing idealism in the Incredible Bread Machine; to me it seems rather to be very deeply cynical about government. Perhaps it is a difference of emphasis in reading, but I see its thesis as "Government is bad" rather than "Capitalism is good"; the inventor-as-hero only appears so that the badness of the government can be demonstrated.

Comment author: Brutha 17 February 2009 08:21:13PM 0 points [-]

I think that there are a lot of idealistic self help books out there. "The Seven Habits Highly Effective People" and similar books are idealistic. Maybe you just think that idealistic books like it aren't serious books?

Comment author: michael_vassar3 17 February 2009 08:54:59PM 5 points [-]

Self Help? Maybe some. I think that most of the most popular self-help can seem DEEPLY cynical to someone of nerdy disposition like myself. The essential message of "how to win friends and influence people" is "don't try to reason with people, instead flatter them and otherwise manipulate their emotions to create immediate pleasure that they will associate with you". OTOH, the message is also that if you do this you can have SUCCESS!!!, so whether it's cynical or idealistic depends on how much you value SUCCESS!!!. When I first read it I didn't have Something To Protect (TM), which works like soap for dissolving otherwise analyticophobic cynicism into the nerdy soul. Robert Green is famous for being even more cynical than Carnegie. The Secret, more recently successful, tells people that the world is arbitrary, both simple and inscrutable. IIIck! Worse than saying "Look, Cthulhu is standing over there and is about to eat you". I'd consider suicide if it's worldview was true and if I could even entertain the impossible possibility. Many members of the PUA community sell books that are cynical about women being people but optimistic about sex being widely available. I'd call that VERY cynical on net.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 February 2009 12:10:44AM 0 points [-]

Psy, thanks, fixed.

Robin, I have a hard time seeing the median non-fiction library book as either.

Rolf, if you think that government is bad, and that you can make things significantly better by pushing in the direction of less government, and you encourage people to go around actually striving for this, you are an idealist, not a cynic.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 18 February 2009 12:18:15AM 1 point [-]

An education in science generally, including its history.

Speaking as an atheist brought up in a household of no significant religious zeal, there's a whole lot of stuff in the Gospels (I'd leave out the rest of the Bible) and Buddhism, if you can avoid catching religion from them. So, not for children, and not for all adults.

The self-help literature is vast enough to find in it what one looks for.

But there are two sorts of cynicism and idealism not being distinguished in these recent postings: about how the world is, and about what can be done about it. Concerning the first, the proper position for a rationalist is neither cynicism nor idealism, but to strive to discover how the world is, however that is. For example, to acquire the belief that all politicians are crooks if and only if, in fact, all politicians are crooks.

The second similarly, except that what can be done can often only be discovered by doing it. Which makes it not similar, but completely different. The cynic about what can be done has decided to fail and grants his own wish immediately; the idealist has decided not to and will have to expend some sweat, and may still fail. How does a rationalist decide?

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 18 February 2009 03:30:39AM 2 points [-]

I recommend being wary of a point that needs to exist as part of a dialectical pair. What's orthogonal to cynicism vs. idealism. What's completely outside the set? What encompasses both? What has elements of both? What subversive idea or analytical framework is muted by discussing cynicism vs. idealism instead? I think these type questions are a good starting point when a dialectic is promoted, in general.

Comment author: TGGP4 18 February 2009 03:46:52AM 0 points [-]

The "good" part does all the work. 90% of everything is crap, and that's if you're an optimist.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 18 February 2009 04:03:11AM 0 points [-]

Richard that can be described as near/far. also I'm not sure the cynic/idealist is the correct dichotomy, as cynicism seems a form of idealism. idealist/realist optimist/cynic ?

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 18 February 2009 03:41:57PM 1 point [-]

I think Eliezer is just wrong in his use of the words. Maybe he means "following the party line" where the party is Eliezer himself. Then it is clear why such books are hard to find.

Beyond that, there's enough disagreement in everyone's usage that we should stop using "cynism" and "idealism" for this discussion. Or at least the words should be saved for description of social perception, while more specific terms should be used for, say, describing books.

Comment author: Joseph2 18 February 2009 06:42:35PM 0 points [-]

I wonder what the best book is, and whether it is cynical or idealistic. I think that it depends where you fit the best book into your knowledge structure. I'd expect the base to be cynical and the pinnacle to be idealistic. I suppose I tend to think the base is the most important. Maybe this is evidence of shortsightedness.

Comment author: billswift 19 February 2009 12:04:27AM 0 points [-]

"I suspect that idealistic fiction aimed specifically at children is a far greater cultural force than anything they pick up from their school textbooks."

Someone wrote, unfortunately I don't remember the source, I think it was Heinlein, that he preferred writing for children since they liked having things explained to them.

If you want cynical versus idealistic writing, you might try compoaring Ehrlich, the Global 2000 Report, and other environmentalist writers to Julian Simon, especially his "The Ultimate Resource" (the first edition is shorter and more readable, the second mostly updates the statistics) and Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist".

Comment author: Anonymous_Coward4 19 February 2009 09:01:04AM 0 points [-]

One book suggestion. "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins.

Although there is a plug for his own research model, I would summarise the book as:

- brains are a bit tough - but they can't be that tough - someone is going to figure it out eventually - so let's try to figure out - here's everything i learned myself, hope it helps YOU figure this out, if I can't.

Enjoyable book actually, regardless of what you think of his own preferred AI technique.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 February 2009 12:14:57PM *  0 points [-]

I recommend Zarah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor Mbachu-- it's a young adult novel with various sorts of cooperation working out well. It's also good on thinking about what you're trying to do.

At a first pass, idealism is the idea that cooperative behavior is reliably rewarded. Cynicism is the belief that cooperative behavior is reliably punished or is at best ineffective.

This gets complicated because cooperation with one group can be defection to another.

The idea that goals can't be achieved at all is more thorough-going than cynicism-- call it despair.

So PUA and to a lesser extent Andrew Carnegie are cynical, but they're in strong opposition to despair.

Comment author: Jonas2 19 February 2009 01:31:20PM 0 points [-]

Maybe I am weird but I don`t want to seem like a cynic.

How long does a depression usually last? Is it a matter of weeks or months? Depression really creates a game of chess (not in a cynical sense). Does oneself run into it, or is it in one`s genes?

It really slows down one`s capabilities to keep going one`s daily routine. Sometimes "stupid teenagers" are sad for no particular reason. Sometimes "stupid teenagers" are sad because of particular reasons.

I was not bluffing with that "earthjump", if someone supports this project with knowledge and wisdom, I would be happy to jump and I am sure there are other scientists who would also like to participate. I only have a minor number of skydives so far. But I did not hesitate on my first skydive. I was very happy about that because no hesitation did not save me from fear.

Is it possible to build a lighter structure of the suits (maybe with nano-technology)? More freedom of movement during free fall phase even though one extra parachute is added to the suit would it make it less frightful.

What are the overall costs for a save completion of this product?

30 million euro?

Whould the environment be harmed, if we created this product?

Whould the product increase the possibility of roi?

Is Woody Allen volunteering to jump?

Could science gain knowledge with a re-enactment of Kittinger`s "Earthjump" ?

Is the possible knowledged to be gained in such a re-enactment worth the worktime and investment of 30 million euro?

Comment author: Christopher_M2 19 February 2009 04:38:04PM 1 point [-]

I'd include Gรถdel, Escher, Bach which seems idealistic in spirit, and maybe in its approach to AI, although the AI bits are of course the parts of the book that seem most dated now.

Comment author: Doug_S. 19 February 2009 09:07:18PM -1 points [-]

I wonder... are the works of Karl Marx idealistic, cynical, or both?

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 24 February 2009 07:34:26PM -1 points [-]

I didn't find "Engines" very positive. I agree with Moravec:

"I found the speculations absurdly anthropocentric. Here we have machines millions of times more intelligent, plentiful, fecund, and industrious than ourselves, evolving and planning circles around us. And every single one exists only to support us in luxury in our ponderous, glacial, antique bodies and dim witted minds. There is no hint in Drexler's discussion of the potential lost by keeping our creations so totally enslaved."

IMO, Drexler's proposed future is an unlikely nightmare world.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 November 2013 06:49:53PM 0 points [-]

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides...

I'm glad to see Wikipedia has both cynics and idealists - it needs both!