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References & Resources for LessWrong

90 XiXiDu 10 October 2010 02:54PM

A list of references and resources for LW

Updated: 2011-05-24

  • F = Free
  • E = Easy (adequate for a low educational background)
  • M = Memetic Hazard (controversial ideas or works of fiction)


Do not flinch, most of LessWrong can be read and understood by people with a previous level of education less than secondary school. (And Khan Academy followed by BetterExplained plus the help of Google and Wikipedia ought to be enough to let anyone read anything directed at the scientifically literate.) Most of these references aren't prerequisite, and only a small fraction are pertinent to any particular post on LessWrong. Do not be intimidated, just go ahead and start reading the Sequences if all this sounds too long. It's much easier to understand than this list makes it look like.

Nevertheless, as it says in the Twelve Virtues of Rationality, scholarship is a virtue, and in particular:

It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory.

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Book Recommendations

25 NancyLebovitz 09 August 2010 08:03PM

This is a place to consolidate book recommendations.

I'm reading The Logic of Failure and enjoying it quite a bit. I wasn't sure whether I'd heard of it here, and I found a post here called Great Books of Failure, an article which hadn't crossed my path before.

There's a recent thread about books for a gifted young teen and a slightly less recent discussion of books on cogsci thread which might or might not be found by someone looking for good books.

So, what books or lists of books do you recommend?

A Rationalist's Bookshelf: The Mind's I (Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, 1981)

15 colinmarshall 26 August 2009 07:08PM

When the call to compile a reading list for new rationalists went out, contributor djcb responded by suggesting The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, a compilation of essays, fictions and excerpts "composed and arranged" by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. Cut to me peering guiltily over my shoulder, my own copy sitting unread on the shelf, peering back.

The book presents Hofstadter and Dennett's co-curation of 27 pieces, some penned by the curators themselves, meant to "reveal" and "make vivid" a set of "perplexities," to wit: "What is the mind?" "Who am I?" "Can mere matter think or feel?" "Where is the soul?" Two immediate concerns arise. First, The Mind's I's 1981 publication date gives it access to the vast majority of what's been thought and said about these questions, but robs it of of any intellectual progress toward the answers made in the nearly three decades since. (This turns out not to be an issue, as most of the answers seem to have drawn no closer in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s.) Second, those sound suspiciously similar to questions hazily articulated by college freshmen, less amenable to "rational inquiry" than to "dorm furniture and bad weed." They don't quite pass the "man test," an reversal of the fortune cookie "in bed" game: simply tack "man" onto the beginning of each question and see who laughs. "Man, who am I?" "Man, where is the soul?" "Man, can matter think or feel?"

Hofstadter and Dennett's fans know, however, that their analyses rise a cut above, engaged as they are in the admirable struggle to excise the navel-gazing from traditionally navel-gazey topics. The beauty is that they've always accomplished this, together and separately, not by making these issues less exciting but by making them more so. Their clear, stimulating exegeses, explorations and speculations brim with both the enthusiasm of the thrilled neophyte and the levelheadedness of the seasoned surveyor. They even do it humorously, Hofstadter with his zig-zaggy punniness and Dennett with his wit that somehow stays just north of goofy. Thus armed, they've taken on such potentially dangerous topics as whether words and thoughts follow rules, how the animate emerges from the inanimate (Hofstader's rightly celebrated Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) and consciousness (most of Dennett's career), on the whole safely.

But obviously this is not a "pure" (whatever that might mean) Hofstadter-Dennett joint; rather, their editorial choices compose one half and their personal commentaries — "reflections," they banner them — on the fruits of those choices compose the other. Nearly every selection, whether a short story, article, novel segment or dialogue, leads into an original discussion and evaluation by, as they sign them, D.R.H. and/or D.C.D. They affirm, they contradict, they expand, they question, they veer off in their own directions; the reflections would make a neat little book on the topics at hand by themselves.

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Good Idealistic Books are Rare

4 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.

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