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Rationalist Fiction

27 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 08:22AM

Followup toLawrence Watt-Evans's Fiction
Reply toOn Juvenile Fiction

MBlume asked us to remember what childhood stories might have influenced us toward rationality; and this was given such excellent answers as Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.  So now I'd like to ask a related question, expanding the purview to all novels (adult or child, SF&F or literary):  Where can we find explicitly rationalist fiction?

Now of course there are a great many characters who claim to be using logic.  The whole genre of mystery stories with seemingly logical detectives, starting from Sherlock Holmes, would stand in witness of that.

But when you look at what Sherlock Holmes does - you can't go out and do it at home.  Sherlock Holmes is not really operating by any sort of reproducible method.  He is operating by magically finding the right clues and carrying out magically correct complicated chains of deduction.  Maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that reading Sherlock Holmes does not inspire you to go and do likewise.  Holmes is a mutant superhero.  And even if you did try to imitate him, it would never work in real life.

Contrast to A. E. van Vogt's Null-A novels, starting with The World of Null-A.  Now let it first be admitted that Van Vogt had a number of flaws as an author.  With that said, it is probably a historical fact about my causal origins, that the Null-A books had an impact on my mind that I didn't even realize until years later.  It's not the sort of book that I read over and over again, I read it and then put it down, but -

- but this is where I was first exposed to such concepts as "The map is not the territory" and "rose1 is not rose2".

Null-A stands for "Non-Aristotelian", and the premise of the ficton is that studying Korzybski's General Semantics makes you a superhero.  Let's not really go into that part.  But in the Null-A ficton:

1)  The protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, is not a mutant.  He has studied rationality techniques that have been systematized and are used by other members of his society, not just him.

2)  Van Vogt tells us what (some of) these principles are, rather than leaving them mysteriously blank - we can't be Gilbert Gosseyn, but we can at least use some of this stuff.

3)  Van Vogt conveys the experience, shows Gosseyn in action using the principles, rather than leaving them to triumphant explanation afterward.  We are put into Gosseyn's shoes at the moment of his e.g. making a conscious distinction between two different things referred to by the same name.

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