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Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story

32 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 February 2009 05:16PM

To break up the awkward silence at the start of a recent Overcoming Bias meetup, I asked everyone present to tell their rationalist origin story - a key event or fact that played a role in their first beginning to aspire to rationality.  This worked surprisingly well (and I would recommend it for future meetups).

I think I've already told enough of my own origin story on Overcoming Bias: how I was digging in my parents' yard as a kid and found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem, and how I wore it to bed that night and dreamed of a woman in white, holding an ancient leather-bound book called Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 1982)... but there's no need to go into that again.

So, seriously... how did you originally go down that road?

Added:  For some odd reason, many of the commenters here seem to have had a single experience in common - namely, at some point, encountering Overcoming Bias...  But I'm especially interested in what it takes to get the transition started - crossing the first divide.  This would be very valuable knowledge if it can be generalized.  If that did happen at OB, please try to specify what was the crucial "Aha!" insight (down to the specific post if possible).

Comments (402)

Comment author: Yvain 28 February 2009 09:25:39PM 40 points [-]

Since it would be impossible to disentangle and explain all the different factors, and all the studies say people are terrible at determining what events influence them anyway, I'll just tell the event in my transition to rationalism that makes for the best story:

When I was around five, my kindergarten teacher decided to initiate my friends and I into the Great Miracle Of Life by bringing an incubator full of chicken eggs into the classroom. I watched them hatch, loved the little chicks, and (after some time and other events including a bad experience at a meat-filled Asian restaurant) decided to become a vegetarian and eat neither meat nor eggs.

When I was about eleven, I got quite into politics, and like most people in my area ended up as a typical liberal. And so I was of course pro-choice: why should we respect the rights of fetuses when they're just a collection of cells and not even really alive?

It took me a while to realize that I was simultaneously refusing to eat eggs because potential-chickens were valuable living beings who deserved respect, and condoning abortion because potential-humans weren't.

If I'd been a little older and a little cleverer, I'd have made up some typical political excuse why it was really about freedom or human rights or society or something (or else just learned the difference between fertilized and unfertilized eggs!)

But I was young and innocent enough to take a moment to think "Maybe my brain is just telling me what it thinks I want to hear in each situation, instead of really thinking things through. I should find a way to stop that."

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 05:33:58PM 33 points [-]

This was going to be a Discussion article where I panicked about becoming a Yudowksy fanboy, but I thought it might fit better here. Maybe.

I am extremely embarrassed by what I am going to write, but is has been weighting on my mind, and I was wondering if other Lesswrongers were feeling similarly.

See, the more sequences I read, the more amazed I am by the man's work. I mean, back at the beginning, I used to grudgingly respect the guy. Then, the deeper I delved into it, the more sucked-in I was. It was like finding a goldmine. We had the same "basic wavelength", for lack of a better term. There wasn't the dissonance I usually felt when reading other philosophers or writers. He viewed the world from a perspective very similar to mine, and derived his ethics and morality in much the same way I would. Except... we clearly aren't equals. The sheer volume of his work is staggering. The depth of his insights, and, more importantly, how diverse they are, all the fields he covers... He talks about nearly everything that I have ever thought to be relevant or interesting. And he keeps pouring them out. One article a day, isn't it? And then he has his fanfiction. And his day job on top of all that. Where does he find the energy? Despite the evident flaws that seem to be there to remind us that this is a human being rather than some... supernatural creature, after a while my attitude changed from "hey, this guy is pretty cool" to "[speechless]". I feel this is dangerous. "Admiration is the feeling that is furthest from understanding". But that's exactly it. I feel I cannot comprehend, cannot classify and make a model of Eliezer Yudkowsky in the same way I can make it of most humans. It's just too big. Even supposing a large chunk of his massive periodic output of Deep Thoughts is second hand, it makes me wonder where he had the time to read all that, process it and build something new out of it.

This distresses me. It distresses me that I am starting to unconsciously adopt a heuristic that, by default, I should trust his opinion. On a couple of occasions, he deliberately and declaredly left a flaw in his articles. Which I have been unable to find. It distresses me that he is the first author I read that can truly and completely fool me without me noticing something fishy. It distresses me to have found a Living Philosopher and only be one of the Disciples, like the kids in Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. If he keeps this pace up, I don't think I'll be able to formulate anything original in my life: the weight of his work is just too huge even to translate.

There is the relief I felt when I finally discovered something wothwile to read. I had despaired of philosophers, and litterate scinetists, and journalists, and social commentarists. I desaired of revolutions and dreams of the future, and I beleived we would be lucky as a species if we could avoid the major ecological catastrophe that's coming upon us. Everywhere I only saw lofty old people thinking they were the be-all and end-all, postmoderns endlessly talking out of their asses (excuse my Klatchian) and people intellectually walking in circles, pacing without a horizon or a compass. Then I found this guy and the shapes behind the darkness were brought out. The insanity behind most people's decisions was classified, labeled. My own self-delusions were painfully taken apart. Thoughts I had never dared to think, but were nibbling at the back of my mind, were gloriously developed to their ultimate conclusions. Pains I felt when looking at the world (including myslef) for which I had no name were sorted and tamed.

So. I can confidently say that I was a "proto-rationalist" ever since I had memory. That I always asked the difficult questions. Always went for the most complete point of view, analyzing a situation from all angles and perspectives I could think of. Which is the reason I could never believe my enemies were "evil mutants". But I was alone. Utterly alone. By the time I was seventeen, I thought I was the Only Sane Man alive. It was terrifying. I couldn't trust anyone. I could never relax my critical senses. My bullshit-detector was so sensitive most works from the media that weren't fiction were thoroughly unenjoyable.

Then I stumbled upon this place. While now I can detect bullshit much more easily, it affects me a lot less. Because now I know how normal it is. I know why people are like that. This has brought me such a peace of mind.

Another thing that has brought me much peace was the abandonment of the Quest For God. At last I knew why no one, regardless of political leanings or actual observance, seemed to take religion seriously and be consistent with it. And doing away with that pain, with the moral anguish of believing in a god that seemed to have values so different to yours, that was so incomprehensible if you took Him at face value, but so, oh so simple when you treated Him as a piece of fiction meant to hold a group together... Suddenly, I was alone. But the world was vast. Where to begin now, I asked myslef?

Then I found out that we guys could become a community. Join forces against evil. Problem being, most of you guys live in the USA. This is kind of inconvenient. The other problem is that, if I become a militant rationalist, I am certain to have a Sword of Damocles upon my head in Divine Right Absolute Monarchy of a home country. Should I exile myslelf, when there is so much I could do there to raise the sanity waterline?

I am now faced with interesting choices. "May you live Interesting Times" indeed:

Comment author: wallowinmaya 02 June 2011 10:43:09AM 5 points [-]

Brilliant! It's seldom that I can relate to every single line of a comment.

Comment author: salij 11 May 2014 03:22:39AM 1 point [-]

How strange.. I thought the same as well. It is curious to find my brethren, when I have so long felt alone in this.

Comment author: Swimmy 28 February 2009 01:18:39AM 30 points [-]

I was raised in a religious household and took it very seriously. At the same time, I always enjoyed skepticism and debunking, because I was always entertained by such things. But when it came to philosophy I was completely full of it. I got away with it by living in an area where I only encountered other Christians, not many atheists. When I did actually encounter some atheists, I would do some hand-waving about how there was something Deep and Intellectual about Christian apologetics that they were missing.

I dated someone who was extremely, well, hippie. Completely non-judgemental about even the most absurd hypotheses. I really hated that kind of attitude--where was her intellectual curiosity? So I got more into specific skeptic arguments. I fell in love with James Randi and watched almost every video of him that existed on Youtube at the time. But I waited to apply any of the lessons to the Big Question. Christianity was a huge part of my life; my entire family is still very seriously Christian, and a huge chunk of my social network used to be.

I started reading Overcoming Bias because, hey, Mason econ student, why wouldn't I read another great blog? There are several lessons on that site that I still summon all the time in arguments, but it took some internal realization to understand what applied where.

First, if I hadn't been trained in orthodox statistics--if I didn't know specifically what methods science used--I never would have gotten many of the arguments. I would have been happy to get this training much earlier in life. That's a basis by which "science can't know anything" arguments immediately fall apart.

From there, these are the posts that most helped me and why.

First, being raised in a presuppositionalist church, I had to be convinced that it really did come down to evidence and not assumptions. For this, "How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3" was a good starting point, and it even helped me address some false claims in Austrian Economics. "Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable" also helped, but it took a while for me to get to the point that I was willing to look at this argument head-on with the idea that I should consider it with my best judgement rather than dismiss it as missing-the-point.

To get there, I needed the point made in "The Bottom Line": it is illegitimate in epistemology to start from the bottom line. That is rationalization, which can take more than one form. I thought back to my education in geology, where I was presented with indisputable evidence that the earth was several billion years old. Back when I was taking that class, I researched creationist arguments on the internet and found that all of them had been soundly refuted. But instead of immediately questioning my religion, I put all of that away in a box, to be dealt with later. When I brought some of it up to my mom, she said, "Tim, you're creative enough to come up with some kind of explanation that can fit." I accepted this back then: indeed I was, though I never seriously tried. But to even have such a thought is to outright admit that you're wrong beforehand, that the only way to reconcile your opposing beliefs is to come up with a fancy lie.

Then I was more receptive to "Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable." Eliezer presents the best defense against presuppositionalism I've ever seen: presuppositionalism is to be found nowhere in the Bible. It is evidentialist through and through. Miracles are presented as evidence of God, are cited constantly throughout as proof of the One True God above all the others. Paul's entire defense against the Roman government in Acts is simply, "The claims I'm making about miracles are true and here are the witnesses."

So I decided I finally had to see if I could reconcile the fact of the discovery of natural sciences with the Bible. I never found Intelligent Design convincing, quite frankly because I had begun to respect the biologists who dismissed it more than the religious leaders who touted it. But of course as I researched it individually anyway, well. I needed a better theory of evidence, which I got from "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation" and "The Conservation of Expected Evidence." Bayes + my traditional probability training started working their way into my mind, so I could evaluate different evidential claims much better than before.

Also important was "Occam's Razor." I had never seen a technical definition of Occam's Razor provided, and I was suddenly floored by the outright wrongness of arguments like, "God is the simplest explanation for the universe."

There's more to the story than that. After all, changes like this never have one true cause. I began to see the disconnect between my thoughts about morality ("I have to admit that homosexuality is wrong") and my feelings about it ("But I can't feel like my gay friends are really bad people"). I started getting kind of disgusted by the sheer number of bad Christian arguments parroted about like it was nothing. The entire time I was studying economics, which I put a lot of stock in, and theories about interest rates being evil, the necessity of Christian governance, and so on, all started to look less and less like God's wisdom and more like the same old ignorance that every society has.

It was this feeling of disgust that forced me to finally admit I didn't consider myself a "Christian" anymore, and the arguments I had gathered in my mind in the mean time that led me to fill the gap with "atheist."

This is all relatively recent, so it is in much better detail than the other influences. Surely there must have been something in my brain that led me to be able to reject Creationism long before I ever considered myself a "rationalist."

Comment author: [deleted] 25 February 2012 05:08:25AM 26 points [-]

For me, it all happened quite quickly. My family was never very religious (my grandparents are ardent anti-theists, my mother is an atheist, and my father is a nominal catholic who hasn't been to church in at least twenty years).

Still, when I was a young child, I was well-equipped with the standard delusions: Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and a vague idea of God (never really considered in any detail, at that point). Then, one day, when I was thinking about it, I realized that Santa Claus was, in a difficult to pin down way, fundamentally different from nearly everything else in my mental hierarchy of being. Santa didn't play by the rules. Santa used magic. Thinking about it, I decided that magic was more like books than it was like real life, and I had to throw the deity out with the bathwater. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and Jesus over the course of about five minutes of really clear thinking.

I've refined my methods since then, and discovering Less Wrong has been absolutely fantastic, but that was the start.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 February 2012 05:40:36AM 16 points [-]

It's nice to know that sometimes, somewhere, things work out the way they should.

Comment author: Aleric 17 April 2009 11:00:36PM *  25 points [-]

I grew up in the Northeast United States. I didn't care for school most of my life and was exposed to a mainline Protestant church. Due to socialization from the media and educational systems, I was pretty much a de facto liberal until the age of 22. When I say I was a "liberal" I mean it in the American Leftest variety and not the classical Liberalism of the enlightenment.

I joined the military at 22 in the attempt to bring some excitement to my life. After the Bush administration raised my pay by 15% I figured I must be a "Conservative?" In March of 2003 I led an Infantry team during the invasion of Iraq.

After I returned from the war--still believing I was a Conservative--I started reading pop-Conservative books. I took up many of the positions of the Right and believed "the liberals were the problem."

After being honorably discharged I moved home with an intense desire to learn and change the world. I started school and majored in political science. I also picked up an opiate addiction in an attempt to numb the physical and psychological effects of the war. It was during this time of substance abuse that I first started challenging everything I thought I "believed" in. While I don't recommend it, being under the influence of opiates allowed me to question many of the beliefs that I had an emotional attachment to.

After a couple years of abuse I got clean. Looking back at this time I now realize it was critical in changing me from a "believer" to what people at this site appear to call a "rationalist." Also important in my transformation was the study of statistics, probability, logic, economics, and Western Philosophy.

This site looked like a good place to learn more?

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 10:30:01PM 6 points [-]

That's... definitely an unusual story over here. Would you care to write a top-level post about the details of this? Or are you especially uncomfortable with talking about your PTSD and the causes and consequences thereof, as well as the experience of opiates consumption? Sorry for being so insensitive, but you really have piqued my curiosity here.

Comment author: jsalvatier 13 December 2010 10:54:14PM *  4 points [-]

I second that notion. It's just too bad we discovered this thread a year and a half after it was posted.

Comment author: Raw_Power 16 December 2010 09:53:00PM 5 points [-]

I cast Raise Thread.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2010 10:15:05PM *  3 points [-]

I am afraid the spell you actually need is Resurrection; this Aleric fellow has not posted in the same span of time. In fact, his only post was this story.

Comment author: Annoyance 03 March 2009 02:48:18PM 20 points [-]

I became an atheist fairly early, but it took me longer to realize there was no Santa Claus. The idea didn't make sense, but the presents appeared under the tree, and my parents denied being responsible, so clearly they'd gotten there somehow. I concluded that I just didn't understand some important part of how the world worked.

One year, we'd just moved into a new house. For the first time, we had a real fireplace, made of brick. I excitedly spoke of how this would make visiting much easier on Santa, but wondered how he could make it down a chimney at all, and began making plans to string a net of dental floss across the opening in an attempt to see how Santa dealt with the obstacle.

I had been leaning on the brickwork, looking up the flue, as I said these things, and as I turned around I intercepted a look my parents were giving each other. Translated into English, it might have said something like "Isn't this precious?"

In that moment, I intuited that there was no Santa Claus, and that my parents had been lying to me because they thought my belief was cute.

I had already learned that not everyone was my friend. I already knew that some people who weren't my friends actively wished to harm me. But that was the first time I really grasped the idea that my parents had goals and preferences of their own that they would choose over my welfare, that I couldn't rely on them not to harm me for their own benefit.

Before that time, I took for granted without thinking about it that people's stances toward things could be easily derived from what they said and did. Enemies were obvious; so were friends. Only afterwards did I really understand not only that appearances were deceiving but that people would actively create false appearances.

Instead of relying on my first impressions, I began to withhold judgment and (although I lacked the words to describe it at the time) actively seek new evidence to test my beliefs.

Comment author: swestrup 28 February 2009 10:05:21PM 51 points [-]

As far back as I can remember I have wanted to be a scientist and to walk the path of rationality. What comes to me as a watershed moment was when I was 15 or 16 an my very Christian Grandfather came to visit. He told me that since I had a very scientific mind, he was giving me a scientific gift. It was a thin book with a title something like "Scientific Proof of the Bible".

Afterwards I remember sitting for what felt like hours in my room, staring at the closed book. "What if I was wrong?" I kept asking myself with dread. What if there really was scientific proof of the existence of God and what I had always taken to be the nonsense of the Bible? What if going to church and praying really WERE things I should be doing? If so, how could I justify not going. What was the guiding principal of my life, anyway?

In the end, I decided, my guiding principal was "Truth at any cost." If I was wrong, I wanted to KNOW I was wrong, and I would deal accordingly. So, I picked up the book and started reading, and within a few minutes I was laughing in relief as there wasn't a cogent argument or scientific proof, or even the slightest bit of rationality in the entire thing.

But my Grandfather had given me a great gift, although not the one he thought. From then on, I was willing to lose arguments since my desire was to know the actual truth, and not to merely have the comfort of thinking I was right. That, as they say, has made all the difference.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 17 December 2010 01:04:29PM 7 points [-]

This is a nice one for irony. "Oft evil will shall evil mar indeed."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 February 2009 11:49:59PM 6 points [-]

I've just got to say awwww to this one.

Comment author: Strange7 12 March 2010 01:04:40AM 16 points [-]

When I was in second grade, about seven years old, it was my turn to do a show-and-tell project, so I decided to bring a game I'd learned from a book that purported to be about geometry or math or something but seemed to mostly involve silly arguments between a talking turtle and a greek athlete. I assumed my fellow students would enjoy it, since the rules were relatively few and simple (compared to, say, spelling homework) and the victory conditions utterly unambiguous (compared to the bitter disputes of scoring in various playground activities). It seemed to relate to what we were learning, so the teacher might even approve further study.

I could hardly have been more wrong.

The rest of the class just stared blankly, and even the teacher didn't seem to get it. "But," she said, "You've got 'mu' right there at the start. Why don't you just cross out the rest?" I protested that such a move would be against the rules, but was unable to convey the underlying significance before show-and-tell time was determined to be over.

The book was Goedel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader. I figured that if the teacher couldn't begin make sense of it, none of the other kids were interested, and even my dad was baffled by some parts, I would have to press on alone and figure it out myself.

Of course, I was way out of my depth, and there's still quite a bit about recursion, intelligence, axiomatic systems and so on that I'm not sure I've got a good handle on. It's that basic attitude, 'the only thing I know is that I want to know everything,' and some other stuff derived from it, that keeps me honest.

Comment author: MBlume 29 March 2009 09:46:40PM *  15 points [-]

I am a scientist. The truth has always held aesthetic value for me. Nonetheless, I was for many years a religionist as well. This was pretty much purely through the force of wishful thinking -- the idea of annihilation after death scared the crap out of me, and so I avoided it. A few particularly excellent posts on that other blog we all read (along with some other helpful nudges) finally broke me of my childhood religion. In February 2008, out of a concern purely for the aesthetic value of truth, I renounced the Dark Side, and all its works.

And so, the Dark Side retaliated by taking from me that which I held most dear.

Would it be ... too petty of me to say that I have sworn vengeance? That I hold a grudge against religion in general for one harm done to me?

I think it's not. If I held a grudge against theme parks in full generality because she ran off with a guy she met working at one, that would be petty. There's no reason to expect theme parks in particular to cause significantly more harm to others along those lines than other working environments. Religion is different.

The Dark Side encourages isolation. A false belief which you feel you must protect means you also have to protect yourself from anyone who can explain to you why it's wrong. It's no accident that the rules of kosher are insanely complicated and difficult to keep. The point is to make it hard for a Jew to break bread with a gentile -- to isolate the religious memes from anything that might challenge them.

And so religion gives us one more reason not to come together. It gives us one more reason not to find the people who could make us happy.

It gives us one more reason to be alone.

And it hardly needs pointing out that the way we are currently wired, we need reasons to be alone like we need holes in our heads.

So, this is what I fight, and why. I don't know how, but I wish to see the end of religion's sway over this world.

Comment author: MBlume 14 December 2010 01:57:09AM 14 points [-]

cringes just a bit

In the scope of things, this all seems a bit silly to worry over now =/

Comment author: NihilCredo 17 December 2010 12:24:52PM 1 point [-]

This is very good to hear.

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 09:05:21PM *  3 points [-]

the idea of annihilation after death scared the crap out of me, and so I avoided it.

That was one of the main things that held me (and, I guess, may others) back. That, and the promise of Hell (at least for Christians and Muslims).

No, really, Cessation Of Existence still scares the crap out of mem though I have accepted is as very very probable (barring the Singularity happening very soon). What about you guys?

Comment author: NihilCredo 17 December 2010 12:31:34PM 5 points [-]

In the mid- or late-morning, when I'm full of energy and eager to tackle the challenges and entertainments of the day, death looks like a terrible loss, a fun-stopper to be escaped at any cost.

Late at night, when my brain is exhausted and wavering, the bed is so warm and the silence blissful, never waking up again sounds like a fantastic deal.

I hope to die at night.

Comment author: Tesseract 29 December 2010 10:59:39AM 1 point [-]

Not to dispute your main point here (that emotionally-protected false beliefs discourage contact with reality), but do you really think that many religious practices were developed consciously and explicitly for the purpose of preventing contact with outside ideas? It seems to me that something like kosher law was more likely the combination of traditional practice and the desire to forge a sense of social identity than a structure explicitly designed to stop interactions. Group differences hinder interaction between groups, but that doesn't mean that the purpose of group differences is to do so.

I don't disagree with you on the point that religion often explicitly discourages contact with nonbelievers, either, but that seems to me to be more easily explained by honest belief than Dark Side practices. If you believe something is true (and important to know the truth of) but that someone can be easily persuaded otherwise by sophistic arguments, then it's reasonable to try to prevent them from hearing them. If someone believes in global warming but doesn't have a firm grasp on the science, then you shouldn't let them wander into a skeptics' convention if you value valid beliefs.

Comment author: more_wrong 26 May 2014 06:25:02PM 3 points [-]

It seems very likely to me that tribal groups in prehistory observed that "eating some things leads to illness and sometimes death; eating other things seems to lead to health or happiness or greater utility" and some very clever group of people starting compiling a system of eating rules that seemed to work. It became traditional to hand over rules for eating, and other activities, to their children. Rules like "If a garment has a visible spot of mildew, either cut out the mildewed spot with a specified margin around it or discard it entirely, for god's sake don't store it with your other garments" or "don't eat insects that you don't specifically recognize as safe and nutritious" or 'don't eat with unclean hands, for a certain technical definition of 'unclean', for example, don't touch a rotting corpse then stuff your face or deliver a baby with those hands" etc. etc.

Then much much later, some of the descendants of some of those tribes thought to write a bunch of this stuff down before it could be forgotten. They ascribed the origin of the rules to a character representing "The best collective wisdom we have available to us" and used about ten different names for that character, who was seen as a collection of information much like any person is, but the oldest and wisest known collection of information around.

Then when different branches of humanity ran into each other and found out that other branches had different rule sets, different authority figures, and different names for the same thing as well as differing meanings for the same names in many cases, hilarity ensued.

Then a group of very very serious atheists came and said "We have the real truth, and our collective wisdom is much much better than that of the ancient people who actually fought through fire and blood, death and disease and a shitstorm of suffering to hand us a lot of their distilled wisdom on a platter, so we could then take the cream of what they offered, throw away the rest, and make fun of their stupid superstitions while not acknowledging that they actually did extremely well for the conditions they experienced"

Religious minds did most of the heavy lifting to get rationality at least as far as Leibniz and Newton, both of whom were notably religious. I'm not saying that the religious mindset is correct or superior, but the development of rational thought among humans has been like a relay race carrying a torch for a million years, and then when the torch is at the finish line (when it gets passed on to nonhumans) a subset of the people who carried the torch for the last little bit doesn't need to say "Hah we are so much better than the people who fought and died under the banner of beliefs at variance with our own". This is a promulgation of what is /bad/ about religion, and I see a lot of it in this group. I love the group but would really like it even better if people showed a tiny bit of respect for the minds that fought through the eras of slavery and religious war and other evils, instead of proclaiming very loudly about how wonderful they are compared to everyone else.

I mean, you ARE wonderful, you are doing amazing things, but... come on.

Not that I am any better, here I am bashing you lovely people because your customs are at variance with my own - but that's what reading this group has taught me to do!

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 February 2009 02:40:11PM *  15 points [-]

I never believed in God, even though my parents are casually religious. The idea was simply prohibited by absurdity heuristics. At the same time, I was surrounded by believers in supernatural, alternative medicine, and had a couple of memories of apparently supernatural events. The specific God was absurd, but the invisible dragon of supernatural explanation was clearly true. I knew things normal people didn't, I knew that my alternative medicine worked while all those silly doctors didn't believe in it, I knew that supernatural exists. This gave a clear feeling of superiority.

I started to part with supernatural at University, on Traditional Rationalist grounds. I studied physics, and there was nowhere for supernatural to hide. Mystical retreated in a dark corner of the garage, not allowed to touch real things, not allowed to show in specific tricks, but still lingering as uncertainty. I called myself agnostic back then, taking pride in having an open mind, not excluding the supernatural or even a more abstract God, while not believing in them.

The systematic breakthrough started less than two years ago, when I began thinking about AI. Before then it didn't occur to me that my own beliefs can be treated as reductionistic phenomena, something that has to obey certain laws, which I can reason about, not just with. The supernatural and religion turned out to be mere symptoms of a more important problem, poor mental hygiene, and in their explicit form left the list of matters of concern.

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 08:56:02PM 1 point [-]

But... didn't you say your alternate medicine and stuff actually worked? You don't need to throw the baby with the hot water (or whatever): techniques that work but have bogus explanations that still help in their practice (and I see that a lot in martial arts) simply need better, leaner explanations, but ignoring an empirical phenomenon entirely on the ground that its explanation sucks is not a very good idea. A few days ago I had my first Zen session. The sensation was unique, the results immediate, the explanation (harmony with the universe) bullshit/useless for deriving consequences, but useful for getting the position right. There's obviously more to it that "sitting before a wall in a contrived position", but what exactly?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 13 December 2010 09:24:42PM *  1 point [-]

But... didn't you say your alternate medicine and stuff actually worked?

I said that I knew that it worked, not that it worked. I'm not moved by your argument that aimed to exploit that particular hypothetical point of confusion.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 March 2009 06:07:22AM *  14 points [-]

Christianity drove me to rationalism. I went to a Catholic college where we had to take 2 semesters of theology and 3 semesters of philosophy.

We studied Aquinas for weeks. Knowing that Aquinas was generally regarded as the smartest person in the Middle Ages, I was stunned by the stupidity of his arguments. Aquinas could not have been stupid. Therefore, social pressure was capable of warping the minds of the smartest people on the planet for a thousand years. Therefore, it could be warping my mind right now.

Another thing we did was to study a parallel edition of the gospels. That means that it has one column each for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Laying them out side-by-side, I saw many places where Matthew, Mark, and Luke had identical sentences. They couldn't have come up with the same grammar and word choice independently. At least 2 of them had copied from someone else. I had studied the Bible all my life, and was surrounded by hundreds of people who also studied the Bible regularly. Some of them had read it every day for decades. And none of them had ever noticed this; or if they did, they didn't mention it. (It is universally known to Biblical scholars; but most churches take a dim view of Bible scholars.) I realized that they couldn't see it, no matter how smart they were or how much they read the Bible, because their preconceptions prevented them from looking for it.

I was astonished that most Christians have never read the entire Bible. If you believe that God wrote one book in which he said everything he wanted to say to the world, you would read that book. Yet even being aware of this, I found it hard to read. (To this day I suspect I may not have read Haggai.) I knew that this meant my rationality was broken (although at the time I attributed it to sin).

But now I remember an earlier event: I was about five. I was in the car, on a long trip with my family. Traffic stopped. There was an accident ahead. I saw a little dog walking away from the accident, down the road. I said that it was probably from one of the cars in the accident, and that I wanted to get out and pick it up before someone hit it. My parents said that was foolish, and that the dog could be dangerous. Then someone hit it. And I realized that I had been right - and that the fact that there were hundreds of grown-ups around me in their stopped cars, and none of them had done anything, didn't mean a thing.

Comment author: Emile 27 February 2009 03:10:42PM *  14 points [-]

I don't remember any sudden move towards rationality - I was raised in a godless household in a mostly godless country (France). I've always been pretty interested in science-fiction and in religion (though not as something I might believe in).

What pushed me a bit more towards rationalism:

  • Maths classes that required a lot of demonstrations (and having to be able to do them again on the blackboard with an examinator)

  • A physics teacher who insisted that we always include an uncertainty factor throughout our calculations, and not give excess decimals (I've noticed that I tend to think in terms of probability distributions more than others around me)

  • Questioning a lot of my political opinions, and noticing when my brain was "up to no good", for example when EvaluateAsLeftWingOrRightWing(idea) was being called before EvaluateTruth(idea).

  • Getting annoyed with atheists who consider religion to be the only domain where one can be irrational

  • Working as a programmer, which doesn't leave much place for wishful thinking

  • Reading Overcoming Bias daily

Comment author: Johnicholas 27 February 2009 04:50:47PM 13 points [-]

Regarding working as a programmer, I entirely agree.

I don't know of any other discipline, even math, where one is more repeatedly confronted with one's mistakes.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 February 2009 06:06:23PM 3 points [-]

Yet you are not forced to think about your own thinking.

Comment author: anonym 27 February 2009 10:04:23PM 4 points [-]

If you want to learn from your experience most effectively and efficiently, and to stop making the same kinds of mistakes, with subtle variations, again and again, it is necessary to engage in reflection about the erroneous thoughts that caused the bug/problem and the thoughts and mental processes that were absent but could have prevented the problem. It depends how much one cares about improving, and how quickly, but for anybody who seeks mastery, I don't see how you can avoid thinking about thinking.

Comment author: David_Gerard 13 April 2011 08:22:12PM 3 points [-]

Working as a programmer, which doesn't leave much place for wishful thinking

I wish some of the programmers I've worked with realised this.

Comment author: Kevin 01 March 2009 09:05:32AM *  37 points [-]

My family is Jewish and we all went to a Reform synagogue. This sect of Judaism is very liberal in the scheme of things, making it very clear that the bible is not literally true and accepting of just about anything, even agnosticism (if not atheism).

At the age of 16, Reform Judaism has a confirmation ceremony where one makes a statement of faith to the assembled congregation. I realized that I couldn't go up in front of a crowd and in good faith profess a belief in God. I had understood all of it to be just stories for a long time, at least since the age of 13, but I hadn't quite realized that meant I was an atheist. I just never really thought about it, but when I finally did it seemed obvious in retrospect. I ended up reading a poem to the congregation and it was very well received as it was the shortest speech given that day.

The next year, I decided I wasn't going to go to synagogue for the High Holidays (where my liberal synagogue had 3 hour long worship services). My parents weren't quite sure how to react, but they told my grandparents and my grandparents responded by deciding they weren't going either. This particular decision set off a chain reaction where it was determined that no one in my family from my grandparents on down were believers and we had all just been going along for each other's benefits. On the holidays now, my 92 year old grandfather always mentions how nice it is that the holidays give us reason to get the entire family together.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 March 2009 11:38:07AM 13 points [-]

Every now and then I hear a story about (or meet in person) someone who not only left but managed to deconvert their whole family.

I wish, so dearly, that I could devote the time to at least seriously trying that...

Comment author: Kevin 02 March 2009 03:18:31AM 12 points [-]

I mostly just got lucky based on the circumstances. My little brother has fallen in with the 12 step program, though. It's working for him but it's nature is so anti-rationalist that it pains me somewhat. He started believing in God again; I threw some basic paradoxes at him and he just responded by saying he never really thought about it. I think he'll grow out of it eventually.

I went to Israel last year and was surprised and delighted to see that the country was positively European in its religious attitudes. Almost half of the people are non-believers, but I would be seriously afraid to try and deconvert any Orthodox practitioners, even or especially if they were family. They can get rather angry.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 September 2009 02:53:19AM 12 points [-]

I was born in China, and moved to the US at the age of 10. My parents were both educated in Communist China and therefore atheists. I do not recall any anti-religious education in school, but do have a fairly vivid memory of watching a state-produced television program on the evils of 迷信 (superstition), which somehow left a deep impression.

After moving to the US, I remember watching Star Trek (reruns) as a teenager and admiring the Spock character. But I don't think I ever had a strong interest in learning how to be more rational, and instead just had an intellectual curiosity in topics that happen to be related to rationality, like economics, game theory, cooperation, the nature of probabilities and anthropic reasoning, the future, the Singularity, moral philosophy, etc., which led me to OvercomingBias and then LessWrong. Even now I think I'm driven more by a desire to satisfy my curiosities than to accomplish any larger goals.

I think my experience may be a counterexample to Something to Protect and Try Harder, but I don't really see how to generalize it.

Comment author: orthonormal 05 April 2009 05:16:26AM *  12 points [-]

It was akrasia, Dostoyevsky, and the sacrament of confession that turned me into a rationalist. Seriously.

I became very religious as a teenager (for social reasons, as I'd later realize), and drifted more and more traditional and conservative (since I could see that liberal Christianity is generally logically incoherent). This drew me into theology (thus philosophy), so that I'd been exposed in college to all the arguments I needed to reject Christianity; I just refused to apply them, generally taking them one at a time and playing One Argument Against an Army.

What changed in grad school had to do with the internalization of the virtue of honesty. Because I had to confess my sins frequently, I became more and more aware of my rationalizations and self-deception (in areas of discipline and akrasia, not of course rationality). I took to heart what Dostoyevsky wrote in "The Brothers Karamazov":

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.

Before long, though, the practice of listening for the signs of self-deception and rationalization had an unexpected consequence: my doubts of the faith, which I'd battled as a sin again and again, were growing worse as I recognized the bad arguments I was letting myself be satisfied with. It finally came to the point of recognizing that I was striving to rid myself of doubt when I thought I was striving to investigate it.

From there, it was a comparatively short leap to atheism and to a more consequentialist and physicalist reevaluation of my interpretation of the world. Nietzsche helped greatly, which is why it saddens me when he's dismissed for the wrong reasons (as invariably happens with people who've only heard of him, or only read short bits). But enough about that.

(I later got hooked on OB because the early posts rang very true to what I'd gone through, though I'd never expressed it as clearly as what I saw there.)

My point is that my birth as a rationalist isn't identical with my fall from religion; it merely caused it as a side effect. My real rationalist beginning was learning to doubt beliefs that felt like they needed no argument, because I'd realized that feelings of certainty arise for reasons besides entanglement with truth.

Comment author: topynate 05 March 2009 06:50:14AM 12 points [-]

When I was 5 or 6, I wanted to be a palaeontologist. I ended up with a small collection of fossils and whatnot, as well as an awareness of both evolution and how old the Earth is. As the infallibility of the Torah was obvious, I assumed that its interpretation, which I wasn't yet old enough to learn, explained how everything could be reconciled. In any case, I had much more serious things to worry about. For instance, the boys and girls I knew showed no inclination to date or marry - therefore the human race would shortly end, unless the Moshiach came. Having tagged 'God exists, Judaism is right' as being obviously true, I simply didn't think about questioning it for a long while. As time went on, I did realise, slowly, that just because I'd decided something was correct, like inexorable human extinction, didn't make it so, and that I was not infinitely smart.

When I was 13, I had my Bar Mitzvah and was surprised that I didn't start observing the strictures of Orthodox Judaism, such as not manipulating electricity on Saturday. Now that I was responsible before God for my actions, I should have been much more compunctious, but I couldn't believe that I would be punished for such things, while non-Jews wouldn't be. I became obsessed with the idea that people like me existed who didn't believe in the infallibility of Judaism. They believed in something else, like the Koran or the New Testament. Why was I Jewish, except that my parents were? I started to think of reasons, but somehow they all depended on the infallibility of the Torah... OK, so suppose for the sake of argument that I don't believe in Judaism; what arguments would convert me to Judaism and not, say, Islam? I realised two things at that moment: first, that I would never have believed the truth of the Torah if I'd learned science first, and second, that Buddhists didn't even believe in God, never mind the Bible. From then on I was provisionally Deist, having no better explanation for the beginning of the universe. I wasn't a very strong Deist, because of what I knew about physics and evolution, but a Creator seemed logically necessary. My idea of looking at my 'deepest beliefs' from a neutral standpoint seemed so much smarter to me than just about every other thought I'd had, that I began to do it all the time. So, at this point I'm a Deist and starting to think rationally a lot more often.

I thought a great deal about God in the next months. When I tried to work out what sort of God could create the universe, I (eventually) realised that the most I could say was that it could create the universe. I'd become very well accustomed to bad logic after a few months of reconversion attempts, so it was obvious that I'd just proven the tautology "If a Creator exists, it exists." My intuition had led me astray: there was no compelling argument for an intelligent Creator on the tip of my tongue, just an unquestioned assumption that the universe had to be caused. That was the end of my Deism.

Comment author: William_Quixote 22 August 2012 08:54:43PM *  10 points [-]


Comment author: ErikM 26 January 2012 12:45:59PM 10 points [-]

The distant: I am diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder). I was unpopular at school, I understood poorly how to fit in, but I understood well how to get smarter. I took high school completion mathematics exams in primary school, university exams in high school, and while I never bit a teacher like in HPMoR, I did punch a student one time and demand that the teachers back me up.

As I remember it, said student was talking about a "tirus" which was supposedly like a next-generation virus which would eat up your computer unless you washed your motherboard properly with soap and water. Being a nerd with some technical aptitude, I told him that he was a bullshitting liar and he was to show me what he was on about or stop it immediately. He continued, so I told him to shut up or I'd hit him. He still continued, so I punched him in the stomach, which winded him and made him shut up. The student was surprised that I had carried through my threat, the teachers were surprised that I was unapologetic, and I was surprised that the teachers (this was at a religious school) were putting a distinctly man-made and exception-deformed rule about limits to hitting over a clear and obvious divine commandment against lying.

In retrospect I think I was somewhat lucky here. I was a youth in an argument turning violent, which is hardly a rational state to be in at the best of times, and in the process of trying to excuse myself for committing violence, I happened to take a stupidly defiant stance on the ground of "He was lying!" and got this bound up with my identity, the boy who really hates lies, for the next few years.

The local: I was arguing on Civilization Fanatics' Center in the Off Topic forum some years ago when a poster named Integral gave me a link to 'applause lights' at Overcoming Bias. I then read OB a lot, read the posts that would eventually get moved to Less Wrong, and ended up here.

Comment author: tsprad 03 March 2009 05:48:03AM 10 points [-]

Some of my earliest childhood memories, age 4 maybe, are of Sunday School, enjoying the stories and the socializing, but being secretly astonished that the sweet little old ladies that ran the Sunday School made such a show of believing in their stories, of pretending they could actually communicate telepathically with a character in a story.

On reflection, I'm not so much surprised that I didn't accept the BS, but surprised that I knew instinctively not to question them about it and rock their boat.

But then, more recently I've started worrying that one of these days the mothership is going to come back and pick me up and debrief me. "What have you learned from over fifty years of living on this planet, among these people, as one of them?" And I'll have to admit I don't understand this species at all.

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 09:21:45PM 2 points [-]

Well, I am utterly shocked that at such a young age you didn't even consider the possibility that God was real and that you could pray to him. Seriously, what gives? Where did this sense of distinction between fiction and reality come from? How did you distinguish the Bible from, say, History?

Comment author: saturn 14 December 2010 07:26:19AM *  6 points [-]

How did you distinguish the Bible from, say, History?

By age 4 I think I had figured out that stories about magical or super-powerful beings always turned out to be made up. I did believe it when adults told me that people had souls though, until I got a book that showed the location of organs in the human body and I noticed it wasn't in there.

Comment author: Nornagest 13 December 2010 10:02:10PM *  2 points [-]

Well, what are your boundaries on "consider"? I remember entertaining the possibility of God's existence at a pretty early age -- somewhere between two and four, but infantile amnesia's eaten the specifics -- but always as a hypothetical, a playing-pretend game. It took me quite a while to realize that my peers weren't consciously participating in a pleasant fantasy; as late as age eight or so I remember making decisions that could only have been predicated on the opposite assumption.

For context, I was raised in a pretty obviously Christian cultural milieu -- picture books of Bible stories, a sense that it was normal to go to church on Sundays even if you and your parents didn't -- but most of my very early authority figures didn't make a conspicuous show of belief. "Secular" might be the word, but only implicitly so.

Comment author: Desrtopa 14 December 2010 04:17:42AM 1 point [-]

I also never took the idea of a real interventionist god seriously, and while I've only lived one childhood and so can't compare the effect of this influence to its absence, it might have had to do with the fact that I learned about dead religions at a very early age. By the time my fundamentalist grandmother started proselytizing to me at the age of three, I already had significant exposure to Greek mythology, and I mentally filed "Grandma's beliefs about God" into the same class as "Ancient Greeks' beliefs about gods." It didn't even occur to me until I was about eleven that these were beliefs I was expected to take seriously and have an emotional investment in.

I did experiment with the idea of a non denominational god as a kid, but I never felt the need to make excuses for the hypotheses if they turned up null results. I concluded that if there was a god, it wasn't giving me any reason to worship or believe in it, so I might as well assume it didn't exist.

Comment author: seez 09 August 2013 04:33:22AM *  9 points [-]

Hi everyone. Just to note from the beginning of this comment, I'm a bit different from the typical LW demographic, so maybe this will help shed light on another way of coming to rationalism.

I was born into a mildly Jewish agnostic household, but when I was about 4, I became strongly drawn to Christianity. I didn't know much about it, but I somehow heard about heaven and hell, and that was definitely what drew me in. I was terrified of the idea that people didn't get what they deserved, that bad things happened to good people, that when people died they were really gone forever. When I asked my mother about concern she explained that life isn't fair. But I knew that couldn't be true. Because if it was, if there was no supernatural protection against evil and death, then of course everyone would be frantically working to make it better all the time. I knew there were kind, intelligent people in the world, and they weren't doing this, so they must have a good reason, like that they didn't need to for reasons I didn't know about. I was very confused, and the idea that most people believed in heaven and hell, and it was "okay" that life wasn't fair and we were all going to die because the afterlife was fair and lasted forever, made a great deal of sense to my 4-year-old self. I was quite relieved.

But when I learned more about the Christian afterlife, and realized you either got profoundly inexpressibly screwed forever or bliss forever, and which one you got depended more on where you were born and how much you followed the rules than anything else, I realized that was no more fair. Maybe less so, since the result would last forever. And, I thought, if Christians really believed that, why didn't they go around trying to convert people 24/7? Were they psychopaths? They thought everyone's eternal soul might be condemned eternal torture and they didn't spend every waking moment eating, pooping, or prosthelytizing? Little-me tried to think about being tortured for an hour and not being almost done. And a day and a year and a hundred years and I realized it all didn't make sense.

So I modified my belief to fit my moral code, making my own personal version of the afterlife a new life where everyone got exactly what they deserved. Which helped me rest easy for a short while. But I noticed that other people didn't like my version of the afterlife as much. And they didn't seem that interested in how unfair the world and their vision of the afterworld were so lacking in justice. I know I was a naive little kid, but I felt very alone, like I was the only person really trying to make sense of things. But the truth, that we die, sometimes young and sometimes horribly and sometimes after being treated like shit for our whole lives, was too terrible and strange for little-me to believe in for a while.

I remember the first time I heard about cryonics, when I was 7. I was staying up late with my father watching some scientist talk about some new cryoprotectant. It took about 5 seconds to convince me that cryonics was a good idea. I started crying and my father couldn't understand why. I simply hadn't realized there might be another option besides dying within my lifetime. But even this possibility disrupted my fair-afterlife fantasy. It didn't seem to make sense to base all of my actions off of incredibly slim chance that everything would suddenly get fairer when someone died, especially if I was willing to abandon the belief when I learned I might not have to die. So I kept trying to find out something that didn't depend on a frail, unknowable hope.

I think the disparity between what people professed to believe was true and what they acted like was true initially pulled me away from rationalism. I felt like there had to be some big simple explanation that I had somehow missed but made it all make sense. When I realized this wasn't true, I became much more rigorous about examining my beliefs and the beliefs of others, to make sure everything I was learning wasn't logically insane. I started informally studying psychology to try to understand the why people don't all sign up for cryonics, and why Christians don't spend all their time converting non-believers.

There were a few notable "aha!" moments.

One was that same night, at age 7, asking my father whether he had signed me up for cryonics, and hearing him say no, because he thought death was beautiful and lent meaning to life. I asked him whether, if every other parent had signed up their children, he still wouldn't sign me and my little siblings up because death was "beautiful", and hearing his voice crack as he struggled to lie to me with a straight face was one of those.

Learning about phrenology and angelology was another, because it confirmed my suspicions that just because lots of people did lots of work for many years in a respected field didn't mean everything they were doing wasn't wholly useless. I realized I needed a tool to make sure everything I did wasn't useless. Rationality seemed to help with that.

Other moments included:

  • randomly picking up Peter Singer's Animal Liberation at age 12, and thus learning about utilitarianism.

  • realizing that I could win arguments even when I knew I was wrong and the other person was right (because I didn't want to lose my reputation as the local smart person), which meant I could probably win arguments against myself to protect myself from similar discomfort.

  • reading Watchmen and thinking about a scenario where (spoiler) the enemy turned out to at least maybe be right all along, and maybe (which contrasted, at least in my mind, with "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and the idea that utilitarianism was wrong in some ineffable way that could be proved through storytelling).

Since finding HPMOR and LessWrong, I've had many more, but I think the priming that came before was necessary, at least for me. A lot of the time, just hearing someone else say the ideas I've had all along, but felt weird/crazy/unwelcome for trying to articulate has been crucial.

Comment author: albert 05 November 2011 05:26:48AM 9 points [-]

I was brought up to be a "traditional rationalist". My parents were atheists/traditional rationalists and never tried to indoctrinate me with any mysticism, spirituality, 'mystery' explanations or fairy tales (i.e. Santa Claus). Being a very small child I think my intuition was that some form of god was true with a probability of 25%. That number went creeping down until basically 1% (for "intelligent design") and much less than that for an interventionist god. Also, even as a child, I always had the intuition (and still do) that reality has always existed (or time is an illusion and past and future are just different parts of some atemporal symmetry that exists). I've recently started reading a lot of popular physics books on that matter but it's taking a lot of repetition and effort to be able to grasp concepts which are well above my IQ level. In far mode, I've always valued rationality and tried to be as responsive to evidence and reality as possible. In near-mode, however, only fairly recently (last 7-10 years, now being 27) have I considered myself rational. My memories of childhood of social relationships, responding to life challenges, making (practical) life goals, etc. were all very instinctive, emotional, and VERY sub-optimal. During adolescence it got worse, and I made every cognitive error possible (science as attire, blue vs green, pure tribalism, hatred for different ideas, wanting to "win" debates, etc etc.) most of it was emotional rage due to hormones I think.

Then when I reached about 19 years of age, my life changed a lot. I quit college to play become an professional poker player (which I was VERY successful, even though in retrospect I think it was 75%opportunity/being at the right time at the right moment, 20% discipline and just 5% IQ), and at the same time made a side-goal of striving to learn and self-improve (so as to not fall behind other people in terms of cognition. Since most of my friends continued to study and/or had more mentally stimulating jobs). I got into politics debates and study groups and was instantly drawn towards anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism (according to the popular saying "a young person who is not a socialist has no heart, a old person who is not a capitalist has no brain" I was an Ice-cold rationalist!), but somewhere along the line I started to think I was being dishonest to myself and was falling into the trap of having beliefs in order to signal being a contrarian, have a tribal mentality and dismiss any argument of differing beliefs. So I made probably the rarest political-mentality journey of them all of starting out as a strict libertarian to being a moderate libertarian, and from being a moral absolutist (like Ayn Rand) to a moral relativist (or amoralist depending on definitions). Then about 2 years ago some other relevant things happened. Poker ceased being profitable to me (after some good 6 solid years) so I retired from that, and a bit after that I met Patri and David Friedman on a visit they made to Brasil. Having conversations with them, I immediately saw that they were at a whole other level of rationality (one that I haven't encountered in ANYONE in my local country). So In the last year, I started reading Overcoming Bias and found out that all my intellectual interests (rationality, economics, evolutionary biology, philosophy of mind, future tech) were all closely related in certain academic circles, notably the link between GMU economists, Singularity Institute, Future of Humanity institute, Humanity+, etc... So I got the opportunity to come to GMU and spend some time here and I have to say, this is the most interesting, brilliant and imo unbiased group of social scientists anywhere in the world at the moment. I don't have any long term life goals and am currently just living the present and satiating my intellectual appetite. I feel I have to somehow be involved with this group of people/community but I am insecure about my intelligence (I saw the results of the last LW poll and everyone had 140+ IQs) and sometimes I think I'm way over my head in terms of my interests. I feel it takes a LOT of time reading and re-reading the same concepts over and over for them to assimilate. I wish I could upgrade my brain, I would trade almost any amount of money to be able to read G.E.B. without having to skip over the parts where logical code is presented. Only the simplest kinds of notation are manageable to me! My inference machine however is very well calibrated intuitively. I now work part-time with trading/investments and dabbled successfully with pro sports betting also, so these are practical skills to have on these jobs. Maybe I should just give up on formalism/logic/physics, trust the relevant experts, and stick with what I'm better at?

Anyway, I'm just rambling now! I hope to go to some LW meetups now that I'm living temporarily in the U.S.

Comment author: satt 05 November 2011 06:28:44PM 5 points [-]

I feel I have to somehow be involved with this group of people/community but I am insecure about my intelligence (I saw the results of the last LW poll and everyone had 140+ IQs)

I wouldn't take that result too seriously. If everyone posting on LW had an IQ of 140+ it'd suggest LW posters exclusively came from the top 0.4% of the IQ distribution or so. I think selection bias and/or overestimates of people's IQ is more likely.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 February 2012 11:13:51AM 3 points [-]

I wouldn't take that result too seriously. If everyone posting on LW had an IQ of 140+ it'd suggest LW posters exclusively came from the top 0.4% of the IQ distribution or so.

The entry requirement for MENSA is 148 on the Catell IQ test. Mensa only requires the 98th percentile. The selection effect could be on which IQ test result they wish to report. I certainly report the thing that sounds better whenever in such a situation. If people are mislead by me reporting an IQ that is through the roof that is their fault for taking such an ambiguous and meaningless number like "IQ" seriously in the first place.

Comment author: Dmytry 25 February 2012 08:53:54AM 1 point [-]

Everyone having 140+ is not very plausible, its unlikely everyone took iq test, even (i didn't, and i exclude the online ones)

Comment author: ciphergoth 25 February 2012 10:58:37AM 3 points [-]

Welcome - your story is interesting and I hope you stick around!

I've sung this song before, but from what you say your worries are, one thing that would give you a real lasting boost in your general effectiveness would be learning to program. Have a look at CodeYear - online lessons that start slow, lots of my friends have been having success with them, and you can ask me for help if you get stuck - paul at ciphergoth dot org. Not only is it a directly useful and highly employable skill; it teaches useful habits of thought in several distinct ways.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 February 2012 11:48:29AM 10 points [-]

Another thing I'd recommend if possible is giving as little attention as you can (even down to none at all) to the question of whether you're intelligent enough. Such concerns can be remarkably draining.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 February 2012 05:27:07PM *  1 point [-]

I agree with NancyLebovitz about not focusing on your IQ. You story and actions show that you are more than intelligent enough to get along doing whatever! Your curiosity, and willingness to do things (like move to a different country) in pursuit of your goals are way more important than having to read things a couple times to understand them.

Friendly advice- Try breaking long chunks of texts into much smaller paragraphs. It makes reading your story (and it's a very interesting story that deserves to be read!) much easier. If you don't feel like figuring out where natural paragraph breaks are, then just go through and put one every couple sentences!

It sounds like you're in DC. They have a pretty active LW group, afaict. If you haven't yet, you might want to join their google group here.

Comment author: botogol 27 February 2009 04:38:38PM 9 points [-]

Eliezer asks "how did you come to rationality?" It surprises me how many people answer: "this is how I lost my religion"

Clearly you can't be rationalist, while also being religious, but there is a more to rationality than simply absence of religion..

Anyway... personally: there's no one moment, but I'm a natural born sceptic and persistently urious analyst. Perhaps rationality attracted because it seems like methodical, organised, analytical scepticism

Single biggest book: Hofstadter's G-E-B, right when it first came out. I just didn't know there could be a book like that....

Comment author: OrdinaryOwl 15 April 2012 03:07:36AM 8 points [-]

I followed the standard Questioning Religion(TM) route. When I was twelve, our family had a bit of a crisis: my dad's job looked insecure, my mother was having difficulty with her side of the family, and I was home schooled and acutely aware of the fact that this was why I had no social contact with my peers. At all. The solution, as my fundamentalist curriculum (complete with pictures of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden with dinosaurs(!) in the science texts (!!!) ) put it, was to pray for God to magically fix it. Which of course he could do, he's omnipotent! He's God! And he loves all the little children, right?

Several weeks of ardent praying later, my twelve year old self began to smell something fishy. Coincidentally, in the mandatory Bible class (these were DVD correspondence courses), the teacher told the class, "God answers prayers with 'Yes, no, or maybe.' "

"Well, what on earth is the point of praying, then?" said my twelve year old self. I stopped praying. Coincidentally, my life drastically improved after that, so I felt that prayer hadn't altered the outcome one iota. I came to the gut conclusion that Christianity couldn't be right. Mandatory reading of the Bible convinced me that the God of the Bible was a pretty evil guy, if he existed. However, I was limited by the aforementioned abomination of a science text, revisionist history books (which identified all groups who disagreed with the author's exact viewpoint as being wrong and/or Communists), and I was too intimidated by my mother to go check out some decent books on evolution to get the counter-arguments to the Fundamentalist propaganda I was being fed. It would take me another eight years to actually be able to fully back up why I wasn't religious.

On a side note, my grandmother used to be really into New Age... stuff. She gave my mother a whole bunch of books on meditation and seeing energy in trees. The ridiculousness of this stuff probably inoculated me against religion in general, because I could easily see that New Age stuff didn't match with reality (I couldn't see energy in trees) and that left me skeptical of all religion. Also, my dad himself is non-religious. He never really spoke about his lack of belief to me (I think my mother pressured him not to), but he set an example as a completely awesome, well-put together guy who didn't need religion to prop up his life. Also, we watched a lot of Star Trek and astronomy shows together.

Once I hit college, I focused on shoring up the leaky holes in my education. I finally got my hands on Dawkin's The God Delusion, which finally killed the specter of religious indoctrination that had been lurking in the background. I found LW's Sequences not too long ago as well, they went a long way towards explaining why people around me seemed so insane and illogical. I gave myself a new commitment towards seeking the truth and have finally started slowly coming out as an atheist and a rationalist. (Working on my mother, now, and very much not looking forward to that conversation.)

So yeah. It was oddly anti-climatic, really. Once I escaped to the relative sanity of community college, the religious stuff stopped being so controlling in my life, and my dad is very supportive of my atheism/rationalism. I am oddly grateful for religion giving me that initial distrust of authority that turned me towards rationalism.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 19 September 2010 08:45:39AM *  7 points [-]

I bet my experience is pretty typical: it's just been one really long of string of oops, as far back as I can remember. I realized I was wrong, I updated. I started with nothing... no beliefs, just professions that I think I realized were transient. Slowly but surely I converged on agnostic Buddhist Epicureanism with a little Sagan, then atheist scientific liberal majoritarianism at RationalWiki with a little Dawkins, then neorationality here with Yvain and Eliezer, then hyperrationality at SIAI with a whole bunch of really strong thinkers, and now I just keep on working at it. Lately I've been reading a lot of source materials (Tooby/Cosmides, Dawkins, Jaynes, Buddha) and asking a lot of "Why do I believe what I believe?"s which have both been rather useful at sharpening my thinking. I'm not sure where to go from here; keep learning math, I guess? Read more source materials? I think I'm getting diminishing marginal returns and might soon start having to really paint my own art. That said, at this point it seems the true field of battle will be on the front of instrumental rationality.

Comment author: Nominull 14 March 2009 02:45:46AM 7 points [-]

When I was a little kid we would take car trips to visit my grandparents, and my father would borrow books on tape from the library. He borrowed Asimov's "I, Robot", which if you haven't read it is basically "House, M.D." except that instead of people you have robots and instead of Dr. House you have a pair of underpaid robot repairmen. It didn't introduce any concepts of rationality directly, but in the book the heroes won by figuring things out, rather than by being strong or passionate or morally correct. It made figuring things out cool, and it turns out that if you want to figure things out, you use rationality.

Comment author: Vika 23 October 2013 02:32:59AM *  6 points [-]

Here is my long-winded origin story, with an emphasis on the importance of community.

My first exposure to a community of like-minded intelligent people was in high school math camps. The amount of motivation could almost be felt in the air. After a whole day of lectures and problem sessions, when there was finally time to chill out and play some card games, many people were still discussing the most interesting problems from the sessions, or whatever other math they had on their minds. It was a place where it was ok to care about something enough to work on it all day, and I could never match that amount of cognitive output during an ordinary day at school. Even the card games were of the more mentally challenging sort, like Mao with its ever-accumulating arbitrary rules to be guessed and kept track of. Thinking was not considered effortful.

The Canadian math camp community made my high school years a golden age of sorts. It did, however, have a narrow focus that was unsustainable on the long term. Math contest problems are neat and challenging and elegant but they are still just toys - made to be solved within an hour or two, guaranteed to have a nice solution, even if devilishly difficult to find. Applicability to the real world, even remotely, wasn’t of interest, only challenge and elegance. Most of them went into pure math afterwards, and continued to work on fascinating theoretical problems. I was one of the few to go into an applied field.

A much more prosaic problem with math camps as an environment was finiteness. After a few years of accumulating knowledge and contest awards and friendships, I got to the end of the road - namely, I graduated from high school. I came to visit during my university years a few times, and did some teaching, but it wasn’t the same. I had fallen out of the loop. But I walked away with a sense of what an awesome community of smart people is like, and how much more people can do together with the right set of values and social norms.

During my undergrad years, I was often finding myself being ineffective and confused, chasing tasks that were handed to me instead of figuring out what I actually wanted to do. Then I went to rationality minicamp, and I was struck by a sense of deja vu. It was another group of smart people solving problems together, only the people were adults and the problems were real. They were throwing their intelligence and creativity at optimizing life.

Finiteness was still a thing, though. The week of learning useful life hacks and deep conversations and bonding came to an end, and everyone dispersed around the country. We set up regular skype chats to keep in touch, and they even happened for a year or so. I tried many of the techniques, but found myself increasingly bogged down in my old habits of thought and action. The buddy chats, though encouraging and useful, were too infrequent and distant for a significant effect.

I did get sufficiently inspired by the community aspect of minicamp to start going to local LessWrong meetups in Boston. Regular meetings with the same people were helpful for reconciling my usual worldview with rationalist memes. Last year, I visited the newly formed New York rationalist house, then called Winterfell, and felt ridiculously envious. While I got out of my grad school bubble to go to the meetup once every few weeks, these guys met every day, knowing and supporting each other much more deeply. This was the kind of place I wanted to live in, and the kind of social environment I wanted to have.

At one of the following meetups, I brought up the idea of forming our own rationalist house in Boston, and a number of people put their names down. In summer 2013, we found an awesome 7-bedroom apartment in a vibrant Somerville neighborhood, and thus Citadel came to exist.

When we moved in in early September, the first thing that struck me about living here was the sheer overdose of socializing of high information density (spoken as an extrovert). The layout of the house is admittedly ideal for running into each other - two floors with all the rooms adjacent to large common areas that are connected by a spiral staircase. It was surprisingly easy for me to add structure to our social evenings by “decreeing” weekly rationality sessions. The first week, we had a quorum for the goal factoring, and the writing, and the strategic review, and the habit training. Later, we tacked on a communal dinner at the beginning of these, and while the sessions are generally late, they still happen. I am now spending much more time on self-improvement activities than I would be able to do alone, and having the input and support of my housemates has been immensely helpful.

We are generally good at developing systems for group dynamics, from chore allocation to a token economy of gems that we use for reinforcing each other. There is also a lot of playfulness - ever-changing titles, silly drawings posted on the walls, dancing outings, a countdown since the last occurrence of Pascal’s Mugging… We care about each other, we help each other be awesome, and we have a lot of fun doing it. After all these years, I feel like I’m in the right place, and this time there is no obvious reason for it to end.

I used to think that my default environment doesn’t matter, and that I “should” be able to be effective in any setting. I came to realize that this is like expecting to be healthy and strong while living on junk food, because default settings are extremely important. I hope that more people will figure out how to create a supportive social environment for themselves and each other.

Comment author: SwitchContext 26 July 2013 09:56:38AM 6 points [-]

Disclaimer: Cognitive science says that this incident probably didn't happen the way I remember it.

When I was 5 years old, my mum sent me to Sunday school because she was casually Church of England and that's what you did. It was only the second or third time I'd been and after the lesson they had us pass around a box full of sweets and told us each to take one. I remember thinking that there was something I really didn't like about this as the box was coming around so I passed it on without taking a sweet. One of the women running the group noticed and asked the other children to pass the sweets back to me, assuming I'd forgotten to take one. I stopped them and said that I didn't want a sweet thankyou. When she asked me why I paused for a moment and then said 'I don't think Jesus would like you bribing us to believe in him'.

She gaped at me a little and there was a very awkward pause but nothing was said immediately. When my mum arrived to collect me they asked for a word with her while I waited in the car. When she came back, she sat down and asked me what had happened. When I explained the story to her she burst out laughing, told me I'd done well and that I wouldn't be going to Sunday school any more. On the way home she explained that my conclusion about the sweet was right but saying so had upset the ladies in charge, especially because I'd said it in front of the other children, and they'd asked her not to bring me to Sunday School again. This confused me because the only explanation that made sense was that I'd been excluded because what I'd said was correct but 'dangerous' in some way.

At the time I believed in god in a childish, unquestioning sort of way but I'd already had a few problems with the idea that I should believe in God because I wanted to go to heaven and because if I didn't I'd go to hell and the sweet incident was the first time I'd put my finger on the problem. If I was going to believe, I wanted to believe based on truth not bribes or punishment.

It wasn't an 'aha' moment exactly but the incident stuck with me over the years and the idea that I wanted my beliefs to be true rather than based on what I want to be true has, I think, kept me heading in the right direction.

Comment author: Cakoluchiam 27 November 2012 07:33:17PM 6 points [-]

I want to say that my own origin lies in having been raised Unitarian Universalist with the most amazing minister who never invoked "God" as anything more than the common good or interpersonal kindness. I want to believe that UU Sunday school attendance, or, more interesting to me even at that young age, ditching class and sticking through the "adult" section of the worship, where she would give the most awe-inspiringly inspirational sermons, would be enough to awaken any child as a rationalist. Alas, I am fairly certain I was prepared for rationalism even before my family moved to the church while I was in elementary school, and alas, that minister retired all too soon.

Another possibility is the fact that I was raised in a neighborhood co-op, where each afternoon I would spend at the home of a different friend, experiencing their family culture, and the diversity among those households—race, religion, nationality, economic status, orientation, language, profession—instilled an early understanding that any adherence to convention was a matter of choice.

There is one more influence, less grand, perhaps, than the others, but I think perhaps most concrete as an awakening "event". My grandfather used to visit often when I was young. He liked to play a game with my siblings and me where he would point at an aeroplane flying overhead and declare "there goes a bird!" and my sisters and I would reply "grandpa, that's a plane!", and he would point to a squirrel and say "look at that groundhog climbing the tree over there!" and my sisters and I would reply "grampa, that's a squirrel!", and so on for all manner of things.

My grandfather also smoked, and from everything I'd learned even at that early age, smoking was bad. One day, I decided to ask my grandfather to quit, because that was what you were supposed to do with bad habits. He told me that he would quit smoking if I would stop being silly and call those little feathery animals that flapped around in the air by their proper name: 'aeroplane', and those furry little critters that dug up the garden and left burrow holes all over the park 'squirrels'.

And I did.

It was a while before I saw my grandfather again, and eventually he came to stay with my family for his final years, but after I resolved to speak his language around him (even if I kept to the "real" terminology elsewhere), I never saw him light another cigarette. I don't know if he actually quit, and for the sake of the fable, it doesn't really matter. What I carried from then on was an understanding that there was a clear distinction between fact and fiction and that each has value, but as much as I might enjoy my conversations with my grandfather, and the benefit of humouring his fiction, I needed to place a filter between that and my true model of the world. That is, my curiousity in one (fact or fiction) wouldn't always suffice for an understanding of the other, but even the existence of a fiction had the potential to influence reality.

As an educator, I recognize this sort of potential in all young children, who create entire worlds of make-believe, complete with their own characters, societies, codes-of-conduct, and even laws of physics, each of which world is kept quite distinct from the others. The point where imagination becomes rationality is the point where the child can recognize, consciously, for any rule in their imagined world, "how is that different from the world we live in?", and "what else would be different if that were the rule?", and establish a curiousity about those sorts of inferences. That is, when the child's fiction genre of choice shifts from Adventure to Speculative.

Comment author: pleeppleep 26 February 2012 11:41:27PM 6 points [-]

I would never have identified as a rationalist had I missed this site. I never had a very strong commitment to the truth, as I am something of a chronic liar. I used to make deliberate attempts to try and manipulate people in ways borderline to the Dark Arts.

I did however desire to have a consistent set of philosophic rules that eventually led me into an existential crises of sorts. I was raised by a deeply conservative (in ideology, but certainly not action) father who is easily the smartest person I know personally at the moment. He was intelligent enough to defend his own biases. I ended up believing in intelligent design argued from an almost logical point of view.

I became an objectivist for a short time, and followed the ideas presented to me to their logical conclusion, giving me my first taste of rationality. unfortunately i then decided to study philosophy and based many of the ideas I developed subsequently on internal reasoning rather than observation. This led me dangerously close to postmodernism (shutter), without realizing it.

I never cared much for science, being raised with moderate distrust of scientists who, i was led to believe, arrived at irrational and convoluted conclusions to promote politically-inspired ideas (proven by the ridiculous borderline pseudoscience the media tends to get a hold of). I also came to possess a highly contrarian attitude and abhorrent social tendencies (i get along fairly well with most people but often demonstrate quirks that lead several people to label me a sociopath. Think of the guy in the hat from XKCD only more realistic).

I came to be a rationalist after reading the chapter in HPMOR in which Harry first conjures a patronus. I had ceased to believed in an afterlife long before, but never considered the idea that death could be stopped. Unlike most people, i noticed that a lifespan of 100 years, being less than nothing in cosmic terms, rendered human life almost insignificant. This ironically led me to lose any value i put in my life and seriously consider suicide.

When i realized that humanity had a fighting chance against death, I regained the will to live and a purpose to strive for, which inevitably led to seeking out any tool that would help. Of course, having gotten the inspiration from Eliezar in the first place, i returned after reading the fic to learn all i can about "what Rational!Harry knows and then some" and discovered the sequences. So it was that I became a rationalist, not out of moral commitment to truth (I developed that later), but out of need for a weapon with which to destroy evil. I learned directly from Eliezar that the strongest weapon man has is the ability to locate truth.

Comment author: ksvanhorn 31 December 2011 01:30:23AM 6 points [-]

Oddly enough, politics was the catalyst for me.

I grew up in a very religious, very conservative Mormon family. From my father I acquired the attitude that there are few things more shameful than dishonesty. From reading science fiction, particularly Asimov and Heinlein, and reading science books, I acquired the ideal of intellectual honesty. My father had very strong religious and political opinions that brooked no dissent. In attempting to formulate a consistent political philosophy of my own, I found my opinions diverging from his, but I lacked the courage to openly contradict him. After I had been away from home for several years, in my early twenties, I went through a period where I made a serious effort to root out any inconsistencies in my political philosophy and just honestly follow the consequences of my principles wherever they led. I ended up a libertarian anarchist.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for my religious beliefs. Intellectual honesty had long been an ideal for me; now it was an important part of my self-image. I found that I could no longer ignore the special pleading I engaged in when it came to my religious beliefs. If I applied to my religious beliefs the same standards I used to evaluate non-religious claims, they started to look pretty shaky. But everyone in my family and everyone in my social circle was Mormon. I had spent a year and a half as a missionary for the Mormon church. My wife was a devout Mormon. I had just started my graduate studies at BYU, a university owned by the Mormon church.

And my father reserved his most vociferous condemnation for "apostates".

The critical point came when I was 28, during an interview with my bishop for a temple recommended. One of the questions he asked was, "Do you believe in God the Father, and in his son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost?" I realized that, in fact, I did not, and my upbringing did not allow me to lie about it. I went home without a temple recommend... and then had to explain to my wife why.

Everything else since then has just been filling in the details.

Comment author: Dmytry 25 February 2012 08:49:07AM *  1 point [-]

You see, there's always that thing about religion... I just can't get how people can be honestly religious. There's the part of brain honestly believing in a dragon in the garage - and there's the part of brain having a perfectly good model of nonexistence of the dragon. And they honestly don't collide. It's easy for people who honestly can't see they are being dishonest to very strongly promote honesty; this sometimes works as it should, pushing away those who do understand they need to reconcile their beliefs with each other to be honest.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 25 November 2010 10:05:53AM 6 points [-]

The first time I explicitly saw myself as someone who cared more about rationality than the people around me was on the playground, in third grade. Like other kids my age, I was fond of playing kickball at recess. We often had arguments over whether a baserunner had been successfully tagged out.

The odd thing was that, even though most people in the group didn't like watching arguing for more than a minute or so (you could tell because people started yelling things like "Shut up" and "Just play" with big scowls on their faces), nobody could resist the temptation to take sides in the argument long enough to end the argument. Yes, people thought that it didn't much matter whether Eddie was out at second, but they also couldn't help but point out that Eddie was obviously safe/out, inevitably prompting a renewed outburst of cries that Eddie was obviously out/safe. Sometimes we argued about whose fault it was that we were arguing so much instead of playing.

I never took sides. At some level, I already cared more about my goal (having fun playing kickball) than I did about tribal politics.

The kickball thing quietly but powerfully framed the way I looked at friendships, dating, school, and pretty much everything else in my little world -- I knew that people could do flabbergastingly pointless things, over and over again, even though there were worthwhile things to be doing.

Various classes were useful eye-openers for me -- 10th grade European history put me in touch with the idea that irrationality had consequences on the global stage, and not just on the playground; freshman college statistics showed me how little of what passes for institutional "science" is actually based on sound empiricism AND sound logic.

It is only within the last year or so that I started identifying primarily as a rationalist. I used to have other prominent identities, but various acts of stupidity have slowly been stripping them away. Four years ago, a respected scholar of modern Jewish ecclesiastical law confidently explained to me that the basis of Jewish law was itself -- he apparently believes, without doubt or regret, that although the system has no external justification whatsoever, Jewish law should still dictate one's morals, habits, priorities, and attitudes. Matching his actions to his philosophy, he managed to delay the advance of gay rights in the Jewish community by about 15 years, and he similarly retards progressive thinking about end-of-life care. Although I really enjoy participating in a wide variety of Jewish activities, I find it hard to share a religion with people like him, and I believe that all religions are well-stocked with similar characters -- after meeting him, I tend to be more concerened with whether people take a rational approach to religion than with whether they have any theological beliefs in common with me.

More recently, a junior at Harvard College attempted to explain to me that the world was only 6,000 years old, and that fossils were planted in the ground by Satan to tempt us. I attempted to explain what carbon-dating was, but had to stop for 20 minutes to teach the kid about the difference between the concept of an element and the concept of an isotope. He brought his evangelist friend over, another Harvard student, because they both thought this "isotope" thing was kind of a cool new idea. So I don't have much faith in higher education these days either...I think it's more important to learn how to assess probabilities, correct biases, and evaluate claims than it is to get a "good education," whatever a vague term like that is supposed to mean.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 March 2010 06:13:12AM *  6 points [-]

Most of the math and explicit rationality came later, after I learned to program, but my first step down this path was probably when I was around six. I was suspicious of the whole idea of the tooth fairy, so one night after losing a tooth I did a little experiment: I put it under my pillow without telling anyone. The next morning, I showed my parents, and they actually came clean (obviously they couldn't keep things going with santa claus or anything else like that). I think I still kept a vague sort of religion for a few years after that, though.

Comment author: olimay 27 February 2009 11:06:54PM 6 points [-]

I can't trace my present efforts at rationality back to one "Aha" moment; and trying to do so feels akin to applying the Sorites paradox to subjective experience: lots of problems there. But, for what it's worth, I remember certain events and thoughts I associate with "breakthroughs"--spans of time after which, I became more eager and aware of my own biases.

Here are a few that I remember:

Like many other people, confronting my religious beliefs was a milestone. I'd grown up Roman Catholic, and as a child Christian myth and metaphysics excited my imagination. As I encountered other belief systems I found interesting I tended to engage in apologetics (aka feeding my confirmation bias). Through people I respected in the martial arts I was introduced to aspects of Buddhism and Taoism that seemed, to me, to have some truth to them. Maybe this is akin to what Robin Hanson describes: I wanted to bridge the gap between social groups that I liked. Internally, I began to adjust my religious beliefs to be looser, more "mystical", less dogmatic, to accommodate the beliefs of other people. The big breakthrough happened while taking survey course in Western literature that included readings in Judaic and Christian texts. Looking at these texts from a strictly literary perspective had a big effect on me. I panicked and read The Case for Christ, but in the end I concluded that a strictly literary perspective on the Bible was the really most valuable way to actually engage with "The Bible" if you're actually searching for truth. In my head I saw a thousand exegetical scholars and apologists spread across history, all frantically waving their hands.

"How dangerous is self preserving belief," I thought, staring down at the tracks, waiting for the downtown A train at 34th Street. "And how utterly comfortable." I felt immensely alone in that moment, scared about having to confront the people I care about and their treasured beliefs, and say, "You're wrong."

An experience last year made the idea how biases can just friggin screw things up much more apparent to me. I had a friend and mentor I admired as one of the most a) intelligent and b) altruistic people I'd ever met. In short, what happened was she accused me of doing something bad to her that I did not do. I didn't hear this from her directly: she just stopped talking to me, and I had to really bug our mutual friends. What was she had accused me of doing was utterly ridiculous, but I understood that it would be nearly impossible to convince her otherwise. My friend is the kind of person who makes negative conclusions about people with immense consternation, something I used to think was a virtue. But once she had decided I, an important and close person, had done something bad, no level of discussion could convince her otherwise. She could muster the equivalent of a thousand apologists to defend her existing belief. (Example of intelligent people shooting themselves in the foot.) Aside from the fact that I had just lost a very dear and important friend, I was angry, so angry that someone so good and smart could make such a fatal error. We talk about cognitive biases in public policy, in global catastrophic risk, as an obstacle to human progress and knowledge. But here I experienced a very dramatic and personal example of irrationality's consequences. Likely she'll go on the rest of her life with the belief that a close friend of hers had betrayed her. I do think that avoiding the destruction of the world, and preventing the purposeless deaths of all people is a more important to study rationality. This was just an up-close reminder to me that the dangers of irrationality are here, now, and devastating consequences do lie in wait. I wish I didn't need such an experience, and I know should be careful with hos it influences my beliefs and actions in the future. Robin Hanson's point is especially relevant here when he asks if our transition to rationality was rational. This was a very emotional reaction to a bad occurrence. Yet it is what, at least initially, increased my desire to be, shall I say it, Less Wrong.

Comment author: NQbass7 27 February 2009 01:37:56PM 6 points [-]

I don't remember a time when I wasn't in some sense interested in rationality in some sense... but I can remember one time being at a bookstore and seeing Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" (this being back when I was one) and thinking "Maybe I should read that and see what the other side says." I came home with it and my mom saw it and asked why I would want to read that when it might make me doubt. I clearly remember thinking about it and responding with something along the lines of "If you don't know both sides, how could you possibly know which one is right? Wouldn't you rather be right than keep the same wrong beliefs?" I don't know that it was a turning point for me, but it was the first time I had really had that thought out loud (and it was probably the start of my deconversion and subsequent start down the road of rationality).

Comment author: RobinHanson 27 February 2009 01:41:54PM 20 points [-]

How rational was your transition to rationality? A sudden transition seems more suspicious, as that looks a lot like the sudden transitions humans tend to make between social groups. After all, there is usually little social benefit to sitting between social groups; social rewards come more to those firmly within one group or another. A gradual transition, on the other hand, seems more plausibly to match the more steady rate at which relevant info arrives on such topics. How much more relevant info could you really have obtained via one story or essay? Whatever your conscious thoughts, if you had a sudden transition I'm guessing that was your subconsious mind thinking something like "Yes, this looks like a good social group to join."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 February 2009 04:38:41PM *  15 points [-]

I feel that perhaps you are being too cynical. There's such a thing as an insight snapping into place and recoding a lot of old information.

And there's such a thing as force building up for a long time against resistance, and then the resistance breaking; this is not sane, per se, but it's how I would describe my own sharp transition in 2003. I certainly don't think you could describe that as joining a social group.

Actually, I'd think there would be a lot of sources for sharp mental transitions. Just having to choose locally a preference between A and B will generate sharp transitions whenever A < B swaps to B > A and that means other things have to follow.

Comment author: badger 27 February 2009 10:56:39PM 8 points [-]

I agree with Eliezer here, but Robin also has a point. I think we should distinguish between the transition away from one position and the transition towards another. Because falsification is relatively easier than confirmation, once the right evidence falls into place, a rationalist should expect to quickly abandon prior beliefs. The problem arises if something else quickly fills the void without being thoroughly tested. I saw a couple high school friends fall into the trap of thinking the opposite of stupidity is intelligence after leaving religion behind.

Beware a slow transition away from old beliefs as much as a sharp transition to new ones.

Comment author: RobinHanson 02 March 2009 03:29:27AM 2 points [-]

Yes, joining social groups isn't the only possible cause of sudden belief changes, but since the relevant info should have been coming out pretty gradually, it is still hard to see how a sudden large belief change could be that rational. I suppose one could more suddenly see an implication of evidence one had long held, but then the suddenness should be attributed to have realized that some point of view was possible at all. A sudden move to a point of view one had already recognized as possible would harder to describe as rational.

[I also mean this comment to reply to other comments besides Eliezer's but this system offers no easy way to express that.]

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 March 2009 04:39:10AM 2 points [-]

If the belief change we're talking about is becoming more rational, then the implication is that you've been irrational up until that point and failing to integrate evidence.

Saying "I've been such an idiot!" is a further factor discriminating in this direction.

Comment author: Kevin 01 March 2009 09:12:38AM *  1 point [-]

That's what happened in my transition.

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 06:16:45PM 4 points [-]

I don't know, man. For me, joining the "rationalist" tribe only means trouble, socially speaking. It is not a tight or rewarding community, it lacks solidarity and structure, and we can't seem to agree on suff. However, I would be fooling myself by denying that being inmersed in a European environment that actively enouraged me to not only ignore the edicts of my native religion but to also positively disbelieve in it may have had a role in making a position as a Muslim untenable. However, my change as a rationalist... in the Lesswrong meaning of the term... you could say I had always been a rationalist, ever since I was a small child. The turning point religiously was "Religion's Claims Of Non-Disprovability", which, like many articles here, managed to tie many loose ends that were worrying me for years and made all the puzzle snap together. What Lesswrong did was help me organize my thoughts and show me the natural conclusions of the thought threads that I was intellectually horrified of following on my own. It helped me become more myself, so to speak. So, no, mostly it wasn't a "good social group to join" rationale, though it certainly was a deal-sweetener.

Comment author: Johnicholas 27 February 2009 03:10:57PM 4 points [-]

I've heard a story about a cat:

The cat sat sunning itself by the window for several hours. Then it got up and walked off. My roommate said "That's how we can tell a cat has complex inner life - apparently uncaused but decisive action."

Surely decisive action has more possible causes than social groups?

Comment author: RobinHanson 02 March 2009 03:30:45AM 1 point [-]

It is sudden large belief changes that are suspicious, not decisive acts.

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 December 2010 06:22:23PM 3 points [-]

How about when one does not hold one belief to be prominently truer than another, but holds on to one consistent set of beliefs that their view of the universe and their morality are based upon, and which they cannot change gradually, because that would lead to inconsistency, and then one goes and accumulates enough evidence against the individual beliefs of one set and in favour of those of another set to decide to change sets entirely.

Religion-coded and other similar worldviews are not buffets, you either take the whole menu or nothing at all. You can't divide it in bits the same way you would treat, for example, Marxism. It's all or nothing.

Comment author: Nornagest 13 December 2010 07:24:19PM *  1 point [-]

Seems the moral here is that humans already have a common internal mechanism for overturning belief systems that has nothing to do with rationality: outlining it completely would take me more research and probably enough space for a top-level post (it hasn't been addressed directly as far as I can tell), but it's related to the cult attractor and you can see suggestions of how it works in conditions like Stockholm syndrome.

Being a lot more common over the set of all humans than having accurate intuitive access to a truly rational procedure for deciding between elements of belief systems, it makes sense to consider it a more likely cause for your own decisions in the absence of evidence for such a decision procedure.

Comment author: Visser_One 15 April 2014 01:38:02PM 5 points [-]

I grew up in a Reconstructionist Jewish household with an Orthodox dad and an Israeli mom. I'm sure they used to think that I'd become this great Jew - I was sent to a Jewish private school, and I realise now that I was (and still am) a perfectionist, which meant I felt the need to do all the prayers and ceremonies properly. The first push towards rationality came sometime in second grade, when I asked my parents if I was adopted (long story) because I'd never heard a solid answer in either direction from them before. When they said I was and that they hadn't been intending on telling me, something in me must have started ticking towards science and rationality, because that was when I discovered that adults lie to their children.

I started noticing the lack of evidence for events from the Torah, and even from the rabbinical tales. Science, on the other hand, had rocks that dated back millions of years, or bones from animals never mentioned in the Torah. Armed with that knowledge, I realised the idea that one being (god) being lord and master over the whole universe didn't make sense. So I dedicated myself to science and became an atheist, or at the very most agnostic. I started holding truth-with-evidence as best thing to do, having noticed the general hypocrisy I was being surrounded by in school and at home.

In middle school and high school I managed to find my way into Wicca and Paganism, more interested in the idea that magic could be real (fantasy books have always been my favourites) than in the mythology and deities involved. Somehow over the years that morphed into belief-in-belief (which I only realised yesterday after encountering the self-deception posts).

College saw me reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, and changing my major three times. I tried computer science, astrophysics, theatre, linguistics, and criminology. I took classes in psychology, statistics, programming, physics, backstage rigging, and so much more besides. I kept up with science magazines like Discover and Scientific American, reading them from cover to cover to absorb as much scientific knowledge as possible. Religion of any sort fell by the wayside and was mostly forgotten aside from the bonfire holidays and Halloween.

After college I found HPMOR while on a fanfiction marathon and that's what really got me started down the road. Reading about Harry and his thoughts made me want to think and be more like that. Breadcrumbs led me here, and I'd been intending to start the Sequences for the past year or more. A few weeks ago I finally sat down and started the Sequences. And now I'm here and trying to think better.

Comment author: gwern 15 December 2010 04:00:22AM 5 points [-]

My story isn't very interesting, sadly.

As a very young child*, at Sunday School I was told that prayer was supposed to be a conversation and not a monologue by just me. After a year or two with no one talking back and no other religious experiences to speak of, I began to wonder if there really was someone at the other end.

A year or two later still, I decided that if there was, I would have heard something by now, and became a full-blown atheist. (Although to avoid jeopardizing Christmas and Communion and Easter, and because it'd probably annoy my family, I told no one.)

Everything else - the labels like 'atheist' or 'theist', discovering science fiction, learning logic, reading tons of scriptures and theology and philosophy and occultism - everything else came later.

* I think around age 4 or 5. Surely not after 7.

Comment author: Jonii 15 July 2009 12:22:31PM 5 points [-]

When I was around 12, I figured that since adults think I'm smart, and to some degree people of my own age agreed, there must be something I can do to avoid being so clumsy, awkward and stuff. I tried to use best methods I could find to improve my goals and methods to gain those, using every single way I could find. I tried to improve on board game called "Go" to do that, I studied mathematics, read about game theory, and overall tried to gain perspective by learning about the world, and made effort to find suitable role models from fiction(Sherlock Holmes, House, Jedi knights, whatever). I tested myself against those whose beliefs I found stupid(creationists, ghost hunters and stuff), and tried to understand the nature of being wrong or right. To support that, I also read a lot about human psychology and overall epistemology and philosophy of consciousness. All uncoordinated and pretty ineffective, but then I found a website dedicated to "refine the art of human rationality".

So, the key event for me could maybe be posting this comment. I'm expecting a lot.

Comment author: Cassandra 27 February 2009 02:48:26PM *  5 points [-]

After thinking about it more and looking back on my own life I think I have figured out at least four things that led me to this path.

  1. When I was very young I learned that I was a person and that people are separate things. When I think my thoughts are my own, when I act my actions are my own. This can as a very great shock to me. How is it possible that I, of all people, had an identity which is separate from others? I could not see the dividing line between me and others and I could barely even understand why we weren't all one big group mind acting in union but I knew as I sat there in class one day, looking at other people, that both I and they existed and we were apart.

  2. Once I knew that I could think and could act I slowly over time learned that I was in fact responsible for my actions and thoughts and the consequences of them. The way this happen was strange. I still had a hard time believing that other people could think and act themselves but I knew that when my actions harmed other people they seemed to feel pain or become upset. And this caused me to become upset. I had no intuitive answer for why this was so but it was plainly obvious that it was. Because of this I decided that other people likely function according to the same rules as me.

  3. The toughest bit for me to swallow was the idea that I was never safe. There is no truth, no plan, no philosophy or set of rules that will keep me from making mistakes. Because of this much of my life has been trying to escape from fear. I took refuge in any mode of thought that seemed to promise an escape from uncertainty, from my personal responsibility. And every time I learned that reality was more complex than my philosophy and deeper than my understanding. I could never escape from myself, from my thoughts or from the consequences of my thoughts. And I could never escape from my failures.

  4. To recognize and accept that I did fail and very often is what led me into my current state. If failure happens then what are the reasons? This is where I am now in my personal journey and this is the stage that I stumbled into contact with this social group.

Comment author: badger 27 February 2009 07:23:38AM *  5 points [-]

I had a broad interest in science and philosophy as an adolescent, but the first issue I really had to confront was religion. My parents are Mormon, and the town I grew up in predominantly LDS, so I felt an enormous pressure against expressing the most basic doubts. It took a significant amount of research before I felt confident leaving my religion behind. Once I had broken the initial barrier, my mind was made up quickly, but I wanted to form an airtight case I thought should convince anyone. The friction this generated between myself and my family, girlfriend, and friends felt almost unbearable at the time, but now I feel much more resilient against social pressure.

Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World was my first exposure to traditional rationality. I took this book to heart as a teen. I progressed through some of the standard canon of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rand, Shermer, Dawkins, Hofstadter, and Dennett. I discovered transhumanism through Anders Sandberg's site, which helped me flesh out some of the ideals I picked up in science fiction. I think I came upon Overcoming Bias soon after it formed through Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan and their enthusiastic praise of Robin. I've been a daily reader since then.

As far as recent influences, Eliezer has been by far the single strongest shaper of my beliefs. Jaynes, Gary Drescher's Good and Real, and Keith Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion have also been major contributors over the past couple months. I'm becoming more aware of my biases and still acquiring new insights daily.

Addendum: The posts that first brought me to OB were We Can't Foresee to Disagree and The Modesty Argument. The article that really clarified the distinction between Bayesian and traditional rationality was A Technical Explanation.

Comment author: ourimaler 26 July 2013 06:01:18PM *  4 points [-]

I spent the first six years of my life in Israel, and the rest in France. Now, my immediate family wasn't really religious, but cultural osmosis did lead me to believe in the better-known Old Testament stories - a vague belief in God, as others might believe in Santa Claus (I also believed in the Tooth Fairy. And that she looked like Gonzo in a skirt. Muppet Babies may have been to blame).

Around age 8-10, I became enamored with science, which became central to my worldview. Now, one of the books I owned around then was a children's animal encyclopedia, and it had a couple pages explaining old animal-related superstitions, ranging from "black cats bring bad luck" to "ants fighting means an enemy army is approaching". It was my first introduction to the concept of superstitions. But then, when I stopped, and thought of those examples, and what I knew of science, and what I knew of God and all those biblical stories... It occurred to me that religion sounded remarkably like superstition. It would be an overstatement to say I became a rationalist at that specific point, but that's when I became an atheist; furthermore, it was around then that I decided superstition, and incorrect beliefs, were something to oppose and grow out of.

In retrospect, I can see that a lot of the fiction I read around that time helped shape my worldview. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court showed me superstition being used to manipulate a nation, while displaying the power of science. Odyssey from River Bend showed me post-apocalyptic heroes searching for lost scientific knowledge. Rahan showed me a caveman using reason to overcome superstition.

Of course, all of this only constituted early steps. I was years later that I would formalize my philosophy, and learn that "believing in rationalism" was, at most, the first step to actually being rational.

But if I had to point out where it all started...I'd say it was my childhood science magazine, and that animal encyclopedia.

Comment author: aluchko 15 March 2009 11:08:07PM *  4 points [-]

I can't really relate to the religious stories, my parents, though not atheists, are pretty secular so I never had the brush with religious indoctrination. In reality I've probably always been an atheist. I think this gave me an early start on rationality, not so much because atheism taught me rationality, but because I never had to abandon a rational line of thought for fear of challenging my religion.

As for consciously trying to be rational though I don't know of any one defining moment though I can recall a slight watershed. During grade 11 I was selected to go with some other students to an economics conference. The conference was run by a strongly right wing institute and myself being left wing, and wanting to signal my intellect by challenging much older and much more knowledgeable people got into (and probably made a fool of myself in) numerous debates.

I recall over the next several months starting to realize that my own views and conclusions might be mistaken. For the first time I started seriously considering how to actually think about and try to find the truth which is probably the same place I'm at today.

Comment author: thomblake 27 February 2009 04:52:57PM *  4 points [-]

I went to a very good Catholic elementary school, one run primarily by priests trained by Jesuits. The priests commonly visited classes, and anything could be interrupted to have an impromptu theological or philosophical discussion. The classes encouraged questioning and doubt in all areas of study. We actually read philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, and Aquinas in the later years.

While I doubt that every child who went through this experience with me came out an ardent seeker of truth, I nonetheless believe this had a huge impact on who I'd become. Also, I should note that I've heard most Catholic schools aren't this awesome.

Comment author: thomblake 16 March 2009 08:14:20PM 1 point [-]

Did I really say "Dominicans"? I meant "Jesuits", of course.

It's been a while.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 February 2009 10:34:06AM *  4 points [-]


Comment author: Marcello 27 February 2009 05:46:06AM *  10 points [-]

I think I began as a rationalist when I read this story. (This was before I had run across anything Eliezer wrote.) I had rationalist tendencies before that, but I wasn't really trying very hard to be rational. Back then my "pet causes" (as I call them now) included things like trying to make all the software transparent and free. These were pet causes simply because I was interested in computers. But here, I had found something that was sufficiently terrible and sufficiently potentially preventable that it utterly dwarfed my pet causes.

I learned a simple lesson: If you really want the things you really want, then you need to think carefully about what those things are and how to accomplish them.

Comment author: UnholySmoke 19 August 2010 02:59:53PM 7 points [-]

Apologies for coming to this party a bit late. Particularly as I find my own answer really, really frustrating. While I wouldn't say it was an origin per se, getting into reading Overcoming Bias daily a few years back was what crystallised it for me. I'd find myself constantly somewhere between "well, yeah, of course" and "ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Guess the human brain doesn't tend to do Damascene revelations. We need overwhelming evidence, over a long period of time, to even begin chipping away at our craziest beliefs, and even then it's a step-by-step process.

The analogy I sometimes go over is something most people find fairly obvious like egalitarianism. You don't find many people who would attest to being pro-inequality. But all the same, you find very few people who have genuinely thought through what it means to be in favour of equality and really try to fit that into everyday life. The first step to becoming a rationalist is to admit how irrational everyone is without monumental efforts to the contrary.

BTW, I am totally on the road to de-Catholicising my mother. This is on the order of converting Dubya to Islam, so if I can manage that I'm awarding myself an honorary brown belt.

Comment author: FeatherlessBiped 30 December 2011 11:42:58PM 0 points [-]

WRT to de-Catholicising your mother: it has been rightly said that Catholicism is the most rational and consistent of all the religions. So, it would be a pity if you dissuaded her from Catholicism and inadvertently landed her in a less rational religion!

Comment author: wedrifid 31 December 2011 12:12:41AM 5 points [-]

it has been rightly said that Catholicism is the most rational and consistent of all the religions.

What are you talking about? That's nonsense.

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 31 December 2011 01:02:50AM 7 points [-]

Catholicism has an interesting intellectual culture in that they do make a real effort to tie together the grab-bag of kooky beliefs that make up Catholicism with an apparently logical structure. From inside the Catholic culture they are even apparently successful, although from outside the Catholic culture it's immediately obvious that their "logical" arguments attempting to derive apostolic succession, papal infallibility, Mary being without sin, confession to an ordained member of the Catholic church being necessary to avoid eternal torture in a very specifically-imagined Hell and so on from Biblical texts are very weak.

It's almost but not quite analytic philosophy, in the same sort of way that a cargo cult almost but not quite emulates an airfield.

I don't agree with the grandparent. The versions of Buddhism that didn't allow supernatural accretions to build up around the philosophy of the (real or fictional) founder of Buddhism seem more rational and consistent to me than the self-contradcitory business of an all-loving, all-powerful God ritually sacrificing his son who is also himself so he could forgive humans for following the impulses he gave them and spare them from the eternal torture he would otherwise subject them to. However I can see how someone could say something like the grandparent and not be totally wrong. It's certainly the religion that has tried hardest to rationalise it's idiotic doctrines as far as I know.

Comment author: FeatherlessBiped 31 December 2011 01:40:53AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the portion of your reply that was respectful!

What you may not appreciate is that some RC beliefs, while incredible to outsiders, nevertheless are logically inseparable from other beliefs that are shared with other Christians; once abandoned, other cracks form, and it all falls down, including parts which are widely accepted as true.

RC is, as you say, the religion which "tried hardest to rationalise" all its beliefs, depending on the absolute minimum of non-rational arguments (i.e., from sacred scripture or human authority). It does this with a vocabulary which, I admit, is extremely challenging to the uninitiated. (Aristotelian/Thomistic logic and hylemorphism.) Nonetheless, within that philosophical system, it is quite consistent. It's like picking up a book on string theory -- you ain't gonna "get it" on the first pass (nor the second pass, in all likelihood.)

(Sorta off-topic) I was not aware that people doubted the existence of the founder of Buddhism. If he did not exist, could a reasonable religion be attributed to him? <scratches head> :-)

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 31 December 2011 03:27:01AM 2 points [-]

What you may not appreciate is that some RC beliefs, while incredible to outsiders, nevertheless are logically inseparable from other beliefs that are shared with other Christians; once abandoned, other cracks form, and it all falls down, including parts which are widely accepted as true.

Internal consistency is a virtue to be sure, although differences in degree of internal consistency between Christian sub-sects all of whose beliefs are based on multiple irrational and/or self-contradictory premises do not mean a great deal to me personally.

RC is, as you say, the religion which "tried hardest to rationalise" all its beliefs, depending on the absolute minimum of non-rational arguments (i.e., from sacred scripture or human authority). It does this with a vocabulary which, I admit, is extremely challenging to the uninitiated. (Aristotelian/Thomistic logic and hylemorphism.) Nonetheless, within that philosophical system, it is quite consistent. It's like picking up a book on string theory -- you ain't gonna "get it" on the first pass (nor the second pass, in all likelihood.)

As a philosopher I think that it's good intellectual exercise to get to grips with bad arguments like those the Catholic church use. However there's no truth in those arguments to "get", and there are other forms of intellectual exercise which might well be more beneficial for the general LW readership.

(Sorta off-topic) I was not aware that people doubted the existence of the founder of Buddhism. If he did not exist, could a reasonable religion be attributed to him? <scratches head> :-)

A religion could be the most rational and consistent of religions if its sole departure from reality was a fictional founder. Christianity, for example, has a fictional founder (the Biblical Jesus never existed according to the available evidence nor anyone substantially like him) but has lots of other departures from reality as well.

Comment author: TimS 31 December 2011 04:13:08AM 4 points [-]

the Biblical Jesus never existed according to the available evidence nor anyone substantially like him

What do you mean by this? Is there serious doubt that the Romans crucified someone named Jesus for religious sedition?

Since I was raised Jewish, I've got no emotional reason to think that Jesus was a divine figure or that the Gospels accurately describe the historical occurrences. Just curious about the consensus of historians.

Comment author: Prismattic 31 December 2011 04:18:18AM 3 points [-]

Also Jewish, and under the impression that "subversive itinerant preacher" was probably a fairly common thing in that historical period, as was "people crucified by the Roman empire".

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 31 December 2011 04:26:21AM *  2 points [-]

Christianity, for example, has a fictional founder (the Biblical Jesus never existed according to the available evidence nor anyone substantially like him)

Citation needed, or clarification what you mean by "anyone substantially like him". Because I'd be very surprised if there wasn't a real person named Jesus who was really crucified at the roots of the proto-Christian movement -- I'd probably assign less that 5% chance that Jesus was completely fictional. (though of course many other elements, like the birth at Bethlehem are almost certainly fictitious)

Comment author: Prismattic 31 December 2011 01:52:43AM 3 points [-]

it has been rightly said that Catholicism is the most rational and consistent of all the religions.

By whom? Catholics?

Comment author: Ziphead 28 February 2009 01:06:53PM 7 points [-]

I can’t remember a time when I was not very much concerned with rationality. I think my father (a neuroscientist) encouraged those kinds of ideas from the time I was learning to speak my first few words, always reasoning with me, nudging me to think straight. I developed a deep interest in science from about the age of five and there was never any competition from other ways of viewing the world. Things like game theory and heuristics and biases came to me much later (when studying economics), and although I was excited about it, it didn’t really rock my world. I had always been searching for tools with which to improve my own thinking, these just happened to be unusually powerful ones.

Although I don’t remember any awakening to rationalism, I do remember some early clashes with irrationalism, which I think was quite formative. From the beginning, I had taken rationalism for granted. As I started to interface with the world outside my family, I realized that the norm was in fact massive irrationalism, and this drove me crazy. The prime example was when I encountered religion.

My parents were second-generation atheists, and socialized exclusively with other atheists. Also, I had the good fortune to grow up in a country where a vast majority of the population is nonreligious. For these reasons I didn’t even know that such a thing as religion existed until I was about eight years old. At that point, I joined a classmate from elementary school to an after school activity group arranged by a church. I came home afterwards and told my parents about the stories I’d heard about this person called Jesus. They said simply that if I wanted to go there and listen, that was okay, but it was important that I realize from the beginning that the stories were just stories, as in any book of fiction. That was the first and last thing my parents ever tried to teach me about religion.

Some time later I realized that religious people actually believed the biblical stories, without any kind of reasonable evidence, and I found this absolutely horrifying. I remember feeling deeply offended that such ignorance could exist, and still it took a long while for the full scale of the offense to sink in. A couple of years later I slept over at a neighboring family’s apartment and was shocked when, shortly before going to sleep, the parents of the family expected me to get down on my knees and pray. They were equally shocked when I said that I had no idea how to pray. In any case, I was thoroughly disgusted by this first encounter with actual people actually practicing religion, and ever since, I’ve had to struggle just to keep a straight face when I meet religious people. (My parents advised me to take it easy and tolerate religious people, saying that some of them actually were good and decent people, it was just that they happened to have this slightly “childish” aspect to their characters, which should be tolerated in the same way as, for example, low intelligence.)

I never read Overcoming Bias for the rationality stuff. Although I have certainly learned a lot from these posts, I have never felt that they were very revolutionary for me personally (allthough I guess they would be for most of the world). My main interest here is Mr Yudkowsky himself. I have a life-long interest in the nature of genius, and reading the things he writes seems to me an unusually unobstructed view into the mind of a living and ever-developing genius. What he happens to be writing about at the moment (I’ve been following his work for over five years now) is of secondary importance.

Comment author: Dues 05 August 2014 05:02:36AM 3 points [-]

When I was a child, my parents took me to church a few times. My brother and I always pitched a fit, so eventually our parents gave up. I would love to say that was the start of my journey and that we did it because the things they tried to teach us didn't make enough sense, but that would be a lie. The real sin that the local church made was to be super boring. So with my sanity waterline firmly unraised, I started my own religion. It had aliens, because aliens were cool. I even got a convert. (You are now free to laugh at middle school me.)

Eventually my friend decided that he didn't want to play the game anymore. (This also included an awkward conversation where he asked if I actually believed what we were talking about.) I remember holding firm to my beliefs because admitting that I was wrong would be embarrassing. This was my first taste of my brain really going crazy and rationalizing 'dangerous thoughts' away. My first steps happened when my brain finally calmed down and let rationality take hold. I realizing that I never wanted to do something like that again and I needed to watch my thoughts.

(I also learned that being a cult leader is super fun. If you ever need priest for the Bayesian Conspiracy I will be there with a funny robe on.)

Comment author: Fossegrimen 03 February 2014 04:43:37PM 3 points [-]

I never had a watershed moment when I ‘discovered' rationalism. For those of you who grew up with religion and take faith as a more or less given part of society, I must have had a rather peculiar childhood; When I was little, I spent quite a lot of time with my grandfather who was an uneducated farmer and had never heard of Bayes’ Theorem. (But loved it when I recently explained the basics to him.) I remember starting sentences with "I believe…" and I never got any further before being interrupted with "If you want to believe, you can go to church. Around here we go with the evidence”. Upon being asked about the possibility of an afterlife, he went: “If there is an afterlife, it can not be observed, and if it can not be observed it is certainly not important enough to talk about”. He is a rather abrupt old man. Another nugget of wisdom was “There is an infinite supply of possible mistakes to choose from, so there is no point in making the same one twice.”

I also live in a country where about 80% of the population are Atheists/Agnostics, which makes religion something the crazies are talking about. Empiricism and rationalism has simply been the default position for my entire life, even if not expressed explicitly or in mathematical terms.

Even atheists who are taught from the age of five that ‘belief’ is not a permissible word are not exempt from biases of course, and the first time I consciously noticed that particular problem was right after I died (which could count as a watershed moment.) In my early twenties, I went through a bit of a mental/emotional crisis (for reasons that I may end up covering in another post) that I handled through extreme amounts of exercise and caused me to lose weight. During my yearly checkup at the doctors, he noticed that I was severely underweight. (we’re talking a BMI of about 12 here, so severely is not an understatement) He spent quite some time going over my eating habits and couldn’t find anything wrong. Two months later, I was found dead by the roadside and revived in the ambulance. Random passersby who know CPR is a good thing (TM). My body had simply shut down due to spending more energy than I had absorbed over an extended period of time. After recovering for a bit at the hospital, I slowly realised that the doctor had observed something wrong (a very low BMI) and upon finding that the normal explanation (anorexia) didn’t apply, he had discarded the observation rather than looking for other possible explanations. I was quite upset about this, and I also started examining myself with respect to why I hadn’t noticed that something was wrong either.

This experience made me rather obsessed with cognitive science and nutrition / exercise (which may be worth another post, this community seems interested in the topic); enough to take a year of pre-med, a year of psychology (which didn’t help much) and to read all I could find about cognitive theory (which did, especially Gödel, Escher, Bach which is also a wonderful book when considered only on it’s merits as literature.) This was in 1994, so quite a time before OvercomingBias and LessWrong, or I would most certainly have found this place back then. (btw, we have free tuition here, so I take at least one college course per semester, hence the odd academic choices. This year I’m doing introduction to quantum mechanics which led me to stumble upon the quantum physics sequence which led me to read HPMOR, which made me lurk around this site for the last five months and reading the rest of the sequences before creating an account.) (this comment counts both as a 'hello' post and a 'Origin story' post :)

Comment author: Blackened 12 June 2012 11:20:51AM 3 points [-]

To a considerable degree, I was "born rationalist" (although I can easily see how I could have been born as a lot more of a rationalist than I was). I have always passionately sought efficiency, and I liked rigor.

I was raised by irrational people and it took me long to break some of the irrational beliefs - I was 16 when I realized that "older people are nearly always much smarter than kids, and this implies that they are also right in nearly all cases" is wrong. At that time, I already knew about expected outcome - in the past few years, I had the feeling that I have "greatly improved since last year", but I don't have a clue on what have caused that feeling. So, I was 16 when at one moment, I had a deliberate idea for something which was against my emotions (who were inactive during planning) and when it came to executing it, I found myself very hesitant, seeking ways to convince myself to discard the plan (all of my arguments for that were ridiculous) and I realized that my emotions might intervene in my thinking without me realizing it. That was a moment of big realization for me. After that, it became "my most important idea" and I don't remember how exactly did it help me, but I was very convinced that it helped me a great deal. It still didn't make me a skeptic, because I was usually thinking that "it's most likely to be true if so many people support it" and "if there was any contrary evidence that is publicly available, every follower of the idea would just look up the evidence and resign from the idea, it would spread like fire". That's why I also believed in some supernatural ideas. There was even a popular TV show in my country for competing clairvoyants!

Until I was about 18, I believed my father is very intelligent and should give very useful advice (I imagined myself after 20 years). At that point, I thought any sign of irrationality to come from lack of intelligence. Then I moved in London to live with him and study there. To my big mystery and surprise, I noticed that he has this "emotional thinking" and I couldn't think of a possible explanation ("maybe I'll be like that when I get 40 years old? I must preserve my rationality"). Then I received a PM on an online community and after a few messages, we exchanged Gmails and started chatting. That person familiarized me with the concept of dysrationalia, skepticism and biases. Until then, I only knew little of biases and I haven't yet heard of the other ideas. But even before that, I always followed the expected outcomes and felt that all the fuss about terrorism is exaggerated and strongly avoided alcohol (although I liked it) because of the expected outcome again and so on. After my encounter with that mysterious Internet person (which lasted more than a month), I was a full-blown rationalist.

And through all of that time, I was close with another person who thought like me. Then he met another guy who was like us and I "converted" someone I knew online and now there is 4 of us. We have some additional ideas about rationality that aren't popular in the Sequences (not sure about the comments or the community as a whole).

Comment author: Jotto999 29 February 2012 02:50:22AM *  3 points [-]

Hello, Less Wrong.

With no particular or unusual intellect (that I could objectively test aside from an IQ test in elementary school, which scored somewhere around 115-125), as well as low school grades, I found myself as a teenager who took issue with religion. I suppose my journey in becoming rational started when I decided I was an atheist. I was finding various flaws with religion, as well as enjoying material put out by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I consider that as the starting point because it was when I realized that humans are inherently terrible at understanding reality, and that merely not succumbing to wrong beliefs is something the vast majority of people fail at, let alone actually understanding reality to even the vague degree our brains could comprehend. I would describe this point as "when I started thinking", or at least trying to do so.

My interest in being studious grew over time. The next milestone related to politics. I was a very typical bleeding heart liberal throughout my teenage years, having such simplistic convictions as "corporations are bad!" and "pictures of oil-soaked penguins mean we should hold back industry" and "we might as well socialize most industries!". Eventually I began studying economics, which caused me to go from liberal to libertarian. I had so many irrational beliefs about policy and society, it's a bit shameful for me to think back on it. I now frequently speak against Keynesianism, and finally am beginning to understand the subtle but huge negatives of government intervention.

But I'm not sure my journey as a rationalist was even in an uptrend. I was just absorbing material other people put out, and wasn't really able to make good decisions for myself. I was just cynical and suspicious of commonly held views.

I flipped through Less Wrong, came across Eliezer's article "Cynical about cynicism", and then I realized I was...full of it. I thought I was being rational, but now I realize I was being childish and angsty. In fact I wonder if that should be part of the sequences, I know many people who would benefit from it, many of them are either environmentalists or atheists (or both). It was the article that made me realize I have so, so much work to do yet before I can consider myself rational.

Which brings me here, now. I am working my way through the sequences, and occasionally re-reading previous ones to try and learn it as well as I can. I am highly fortunate to be here, I can escape my irrational past, and hopefully have something similar to Yudkowsky's Bayesian enlightenment. I feel as if in many ways I am starting over, and...it feels very, very good.

Comment author: Jack 27 February 2009 03:55:12PM 3 points [-]

My sense is that people value the truth to varying degrees. Further, people encounter barriers to pursuing the truth to varying degrees. Whether or not someone ends up here is likely a function of them caring about truth enough to make the relevant social and psychological sacrifices to get past the barriers.

For me, I don't remember when I started caring about whether or not my beliefs were true. I know that the moment the possibility of God's non-existence was put to me I immediately became an agnostic- and an atheist when I learned about the scientific method, Karl Popper, etc. I was raised Catholic ostensibly but my mother is a Unitarian (though one who believes in a fair bit of New-Agey gobbledygook) and my Catholic father is a doubter and extreme skeptic. The areas I've lived in have always been fairly non-religious and relatively non-Christian (until I attended a Catholic university).

The answer to the question "what got the transition started?" is probably a just knowledge of the rationalist position and hearing an unbiased version of rationalist arguments. What made the transition possible was valuing truth and having few significant barriers to pursuing the truth. What makes people value truth, I suspect, usually comes before most people's conscious memory and not recognizable at the time.

However, I did have an experience that increased the how much I valued truth-My parents got divorced and told me contradicting stories. Hypothesis 1: Being lied to increases one's subjective value of truth. Hypothesis 2: Being lied to by people who answered all of your initial questions and guided your initial decisions increases one's subjective value of truth.

Comment author: Patrick 27 February 2009 09:12:14AM 3 points [-]

There were two big rationalist cascades that I have gone through.

The first was kicked off at age 14 when I learned about the idea of a logical fallacy, which lead me to going through a binge at wikipedia in an effort to learn all of the ones listed. This directed me to the skeptic's dictionary and Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit, as well as some books listing common errors in thinking.

After about a year, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what counted as a good argument, one that didn't fall in to any of the traps that I was aware of, I was aware of hundreds of traps you see. In retrospect, that should have tipped me off to a deeper problem. Luckily, I didn't work on anything important with that mindset, just hung about in forums and IRC showing off my "rationality".

After doing that for about two years, on my last birthday, I received a copy of Godel Escher Bach as a present, and saw Douglas Hofstadter make an abridged version of the idea in the Principia Mathematica, an axiomatic, logically rigorous way to do number theory, and it became apparent to me that informal ways of "proving" things were just inadequate. Shortly afterward I discovered Overcoming Bias, where Eliezer's essays greatly inspired me to think rationally when I don't need something proved. Going through SICP and learning the mathematical basis of Newtonian mechanics hammered home the logical, axiomatic approach.

Here's hoping the trend continues and I experience a third cascade in another few years.

Comment author: kluge 27 February 2009 05:00:04AM 3 points [-]

I have very few memories of my childhood (or indeed anything older than a few weeks), but perhaps the turning point I remember was in Lutheran confirmation school when the priest was discussing conscience. I realized that the notion of God was actually superfluous and everything that had been said would stand as well without it. After this I looked at every discussion and explanation with different eyes and soon lost my faith, although I dind't officially leave religion until four years later after high school.

I was never very religious, probably because my family belongs in church but that doesn't really show in daily life. Still, I did believe and getting rid of that made did a big difference. My mother has told be that at some of the first years in school I was confused because I had asked her about why world exists and been told about Big Bang and in the school the teacher had told that it was greated by God. So I might have gotten a few years of hints before getting it. :)

Currently I'm studying theoretical physics and until recently my rationalism has been what Eliezer would call Traditional Rationalism and what you get from scientific education, but it has been changing since I discovered Overcoming Bias and especially Eliezer's posts. They've been mind-expanding to read, I'm in debt to all of the contributors. It remains to be seen if I can actually turn them into pragmatic results. Hopefully LW can help me and everyone else on that journey.

Comment author: RobinHanson 26 February 2009 02:30:44PM 9 points [-]

Are you sure "rationalist" is a good label here? It suggests the claim that you are rational, or at least more rational than most. "Rational" has so many associations that go beyond truth-seeking.

Comment author: Kenny 27 February 2009 04:57:10AM 7 points [-]

'Aspiring rationalist'? I don't get a sense that Rationality significantly diverges from truth-seeking, especially the philosophical sense of the concept. What associations of 'rational' are beyond truth-seeking?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 February 2009 04:01:23PM *  8 points [-]

We need some kind of word that means "seeker after less wrongness", and refers pragmatically to a group of people who go around discussing epistemic hygiene and actually worrying about how to think and whether their beliefs are correct. I know of no shorter and clearer alternative than "rationalist". There are some words I'm willing to try to rescue, and this is one of them.

Comment author: Daniel 27 February 2009 04:28:14AM 8 points [-]

Perhaps it's not worth complaining, but historically "rationalist" was contrasted with "empiricist." Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza were rationalists, while Locke and Hume were empiricists. Obviously that's not a contrast you mean to be invoking, though maybe that use of "rationalist" is rare enough that there's no risk of confusion.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 February 2009 07:46:42AM 6 points [-]

More recently, rationalist has tended to have a meaning closer to its current one, but with strong negative affect associated with it. Peter Drucker, for instance, seems to use it as a term of reproach in "Adventures of a Bystander", to mean the sort of small souled narrow-minded person who thinks that they can be right and others wrong and are allowed to say so because they have reasons for their beliefs instead of having made them up to express feelings but the assumption is that one shouldn't do this because doing it leads to communism, fascism, or other forms of authoritarianism. If people don't have the right to believe what they want then some authority must have the right to tell them what to believe. Traditional conservatives can associate this attitude with communism and other badness. Basically, rationalism is used to mean affiliation with authoritarian regimes who claim the prestige of science.

Comment author: bizop 27 February 2009 05:23:00AM 1 point [-]

@Daniel, I agree with this observation. Minimizing being wrong is a pretty recent intellectual development. Epistemic minimax is probably logically a better name, although it sort of sucks.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 February 2009 07:42:13AM 4 points [-]

We don't want to minimax since we aren't playing a zero sum game. We just want to maximize expected utility with a few caveats and with a few blanks filled in.

Comment author: Tiiba 27 February 2009 07:24:42AM 5 points [-]

Apparently, "aletheia" is Greek for truth, and "veritas" is Latin. You can pick either and stick "phile" at the end. So, say, veritophile.

(My reliable source is two minutes with online dictionaries)

Comment author: Kenny 27 February 2009 05:04:21AM 2 points [-]

'Info-maximizers'? It's too bad we can't use 'philosopher' – you'd think you just provided it's definition.

Comment author: Jay 27 February 2009 04:14:18AM -1 points [-]


Comment author: Davorak 10 December 2010 09:55:40PM 1 point [-]

The James Randi definition of skeptic seems to have much overlap. I would guess that what EY is looking for has James Randi definition of skeptic as a subset of EY's rationalist belief processes.

Comment author: cdj 27 February 2009 06:52:59AM 0 points [-]

How about "asymptotist"? A Google search suggests it is available.

Comment author: thomblake 27 February 2009 04:36:31PM 1 point [-]

An interesting question. I've been unwilling to accept EY's use (rescue) of "rationalist", though that might just be because I've been calling myself an "irrationalist" (in the spirit of Nietzsche's "amoralist") for many years now (for some values of "many").

Comment author: Gram_Stone 29 December 2014 12:26:26PM *  6 points [-]

Hello, everyone. I feel that I have taken an unusually circuitous route to becoming a rationalist. I started out close to rationalism in ideaspace, went really far, and then came all of the way back. I have to begin by saying how rationalism was 'epistemically proximal' to my early beliefs. After that, I'll show how far I went. Then, I'll show how I came back.

I think it can be said that my intellectual influences have been relatively epistemically favorable. I think it all started with the film adaptation of Jurassic Park when I was a kid; I think that it made me find joy in the merely real. If dinosaurs are that awesome, and they were dead and science brought them back, then science must be awesome! Then I became interested in outer space and all of the other things that kids automatically love when they love science. When I was older, like many others, I sometimes felt the urge to write science fiction. If I remember correctly, I was researching terraforming for one story, and then I came across a Wikipedia reference to Robert Freitas' respective estimations for how long it would take biological organisms and nanotechnological machines to sequester all of the carbon dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere. That led me to his book Xenology. Therein, he discussed various alternative forms of government that alien civilizations might use, and mentioned Robin Hanson's work on idea futures/prediction markets, proposing a form of government based on prediction markets called "futarchy." I didn't follow the Wikipedia page to Overcoming Bias, which really sucks because I think that this was right around the time that Eliezer was still posting on OB what later became the sequences, or around the time that LW was coming about.

Later, I got into lifehacks like mnemonics and speed reading and stuff, and I found the list of the best textbooks on every subject. I still didn't become a user or even a lurker.

Then, less great things happened.

I became an intellectual contrarian and decided that people hadn't 'given enough credit' to psychodynamic psychology and the historical contributions of psychoanalysis. It didn't help that there were people supporting this who are Nobel laureates and have written leading texts in the field of neuroscience, or that a lot of people are trying to shoehorn Freud's theories into neuroscience. Then I became a meta-contrarian and decided that Lacan was, as Prof. Chomsky would put it, a conscious charlatan, but that Sartre was alright. Then Sartre got me into existentialism, and existentialism got me into continental 'philosophy' in general. I decided that analytic philosophy (read: philosophy) and science were imposing themselves upon a domain in which they did not belong.

During this time, my friend, who is a huge Harry Potter fan, showed me Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I was like, "That's cool," and didn't read it.

For a reason that I can't remember, I ended up looking up the textbook list again a few days ago, and, fortunately, I thought: "This is my fifth time here in as many years and I haven't seen what they have to say. Maybe I should give it a shot." And then LW convinced the everloving hell out of me.

Comment author: KatjaGrace 27 February 2009 03:53:40PM 8 points [-]

Must everyone begin as not trying to be rational? I probably did too then, but I don't remember it. Trying to be correct by making your thought processes accurate seems like a pretty obvious thing to do (I assume that's what's meant by rational). I've rarely been so shocked as when I realized (at about 12 I think) that it's normal and not embarrassing in society to have opinions for 'arbitrary' reasons. I'm still kind of puzzled about what else you would think you were doing, even if you are delusional about your success. What did you folk transition here from?

Comment author: Todd 27 February 2009 07:28:56AM 5 points [-]

Anselm's a priori proof for the existence of God. 1982. I was young, thought the argument was elegant and remarkable - and somehow flawed. I had to figure out why.

Comment author: inklesspen 27 February 2009 05:31:42AM 5 points [-]

I think the thing that made me a seeker-after-rationalism is the same thing that made me an agnostic: Greg Egan's Oceanic.

I grew up in a fundamentalist household and had had one moment of religious euphoria. Oceanic made me confront the fact that religious euphoria, like other euphoria, is just naturalistic phenomena in the brain. Still waiting on my fundamentalist parents to to show evidence for non-naturalistic causes for naturalistic phenomena.

Comment author: Lawliet 27 February 2009 06:43:09AM 6 points [-]

Something always felt wrong when somebody said "because I say so", so the truth from others couldn't be trusted. I knew I wanted never to become the kind of person who answers with "because I say so".

Comment author: Dichotomous 28 February 2012 02:54:03AM 4 points [-]

I began my journey to becoming a rationalist at the age of six. This was the time when I first began to read fantasy. There are other contributing factors such as my parents inclination to free thinking. In following my dad's work we moved considerably, introducing me to many ways of thinking and setting me up for a bookish, introverted perspective (friends are much more difficult to stuff into boxes and ship to Africa.)

Choosing to read fantasy was the first conscious choice I made that influenced my development towards rationalism. I've always found the mixture of sci-fi and fantasy in libraries a rather strange practice, I suppose it makes some sense when you consider that cowboys with swords and cowboys with lasers are major facets of the genres. Realistically all such books should be lumped in with military fiction and labelled "general adventure" purely on the basis that few things are more disappointing than getting 30 pages into a book only to realize the protagonist is nothing but a sword with a helpful, brainless body to swing it.

But that's beside the point. Transferring from fantasy to science fiction was easily done thanks to their proximity. Once I had shifted I fell deeply in love with Asimov, Greg Egan, and other speculative fiction writers. I avidly read anything that showed a new perspective on the future of humanity.

All that combined with AP courses in biology and chemistry, a marathon reading of Richard Dawkin's complete work and utter rejection of religion left me intellectually capable of rationalism. HPMOR solidified and affirmed my growing beliefs and validated practices I already engaged in, such as a refusal to eat any animal that showed signs of intelligence.

The emotional event that pointed me towards rationalism was the death of my mother. Without any religious assurances to comfort myself I faced the pain of knowing she had ended; there was no hope of retrieval, no hope of ever seeing her again. This event focused me into who I am today; her loss gave me the incentive and the perspective to embrace rationalism completely.

It is probably clear at this point that I am still young and many of these events happened quite recently. I am still trying to come to terms with who I am, the nature of rationalism and how the two will exist together.

Naturally I'm happy to be here.

Comment author: beriukay 12 August 2010 03:47:15PM 4 points [-]

I can't really say what defining moments could be considered my rationalist origin story. However, I can speak of my brief foray into the world of woo, and how the first virtue both endangered me and gave me a savings throw.

Back in high school, I was on the tail end of being a theist, having grown quite bored with Confirmation Classes. I saw little value in memorizing the order of the books of the bible, and was desperate to hear something more than the half-dozen stories they told week after week. In those days, I also felt like a budding renaissance scientist, since I had an unquenchable thirst for science and had gotten quite good at guessing the teacher's password. I thought that was real knowledge at the time. Consequently, it wasn't a big leap to go from absorbing authoritative claims in Popular Science Magazine to reading about how the Grey Aliens are most certainly kidnapping defenseless farmers and experimenting on them. From reading biographies of Abe Lincoln or 60s books on black holes to reading about people's auras and ghost hauntings.

I quickly absorbed as much information about those mystical subjects as I had learned about science (we aren't talking quality of data, just number of bits), and it soon felt like I had a master's level grasp of the topics. And yet I could not see auras, just afterimages. I could not contact or gain any knowledge of ghosts. I imitated my mother's tarot reading with a deck of playing cards, and crucially, I noted all the claims that turned out false (almost all) along with the ones that turned out true (not many). Even when I guessed rightly in a seemingly spectacular way, it still just felt like guessing. And so my first step away from the brink of madness came as my curiosity drifted away from these now boring matters and back to science and mathematics, which were surprisingly good at holding surprises no matter how much I learned about them. One could say that my curiosity stopped being interested in curiosity stoppers.

I have since worried many times about how different my life might have been if I stayed in lala land, or if the pendulum reversed course and I went back to it. I now think that this concern is a waste of effort, since mysticism holds no mystery like reality does. Even if all that mystery is just map-territory confusion.

Comment author: insaneabd 01 March 2009 06:20:04PM 4 points [-]

It was happening slowly while I was growing up. I can remember many small times when I was breaking away from tradition and the beliefs of my parents and family. Things started to speed when I discovered OB and Eliezer... Then I started university.. A very rigorous course in maths emphasizing the axiomatic approach to maths. A very logical course in physics. Then I started reading the quantum physics sequence, something I had not done before. I read No Safe Defense, Not Even Science (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/05/no-defenses.html) and that was the crucial "Aha!" point that pushed me over the edge. This was only a few months back. And here I am.

Comment author: jimmy 27 February 2009 10:06:52PM 4 points [-]

I never had a sharp transition to rationality. I have been an "aspiring rationalist" for as long as I can remember. Though there were a few significant events, it was mostly just a gradual improvement.

Now that I think of it, my upbringing seems almost ideal for creating a rationalist. My dad is probably the most rational person I know, and although my mom is normally very rational, she would occasionally get upset about something and be extremely irrational. Not only was I raised by atypically rational people, but I also had practice dealing with irrationality. The fact that the only irrationality in my genes is intermittent (when emotional) and mild may have even acted as a "vaccine".

One of the driving forces for me to actively try to be rational (as opposed to just not letting myself be knowably stupid) was that I enjoyed being contrarian on issues where people cared and were wrong. It was enjoyable to find things that people get wound up about, think about them rationally and see what crazy sounding ideas come up (stuff like Robin's proposals for fixing health care).

Another driving force is that I hate to lose (being wrong), so that I made sure to express uncertainty when I wasn't certain, and changed my mind when necessary to stay on the "winning team". It was ok to be 75% sure of something and change your mind (hell, it should happen one time in four), but when one claims p ~=1, being wrong is an obvious failure of rationality. This helped me prevent wild overconfidence at the extremes of the scale.

Comment author: Raw_Power 15 December 2010 03:32:51AM 2 points [-]

The way you do this... that's almsot exactly how I used to operate. Even today, my never taking a vulnerable position in an argument has earned me the ire of people who accused me of always wanting to be right. As if there was something wrong with that!

Comment author: chiao 27 February 2009 05:23:34AM 4 points [-]

When I realized in graduate school how difficult it was to resolve disagreements, and how disturbingly common crucial disagreements were.

Comment author: tototavros 31 August 2017 05:05:02AM 2 points [-]

One of my (recently met) good friends is a rationalist, on LW, etc. She had made some offhand comment about "Tell Culture", so I looked it up, found Thing of Things and started reading about it; it sounded like a good idea. Linked at the bottom was "Cis-By-Default", which described my feelings on my gender better than anything else. I started reading SSC after reading a lot of Thing of Things, then decided to make an account here!

Comment author: timeholmes 23 December 2014 08:02:26PM 2 points [-]

I am a sculptor of the human body and a deeply religious person. So I come from a sector far from most others here. That's why I believe I may have a useful perspective. Primarily this might surface as a way of looking at reality that includes things that might be invisible to many in our increasingly mind-driven world. I believe that intelligence comes with a frightening blind spot that causes me increasing concern (outlined in my TED talk, "The Erotic Crisis" on YouTube). The body's intelligence is every bit as complex and sophisticated as the mind's, but has access to neither logic nor language. And we minimize it to our dire peril.

This means I also probably come to the place of concern over AI from the opposite direction of most here. I see the abandonment of the body throughout human history as our most alarming existential threat, and one that culminates in the looming specter of AGI. I feel this spells nothing less than the end of the human era. It would be a shame if after millions of years of evolution and the whole beautiful human story with its monumental art, thought and marvelous creations, we were to create a tool that extincted us as its first act!

To hear the arguments about the rise of AI and the Singularity causes me much grief due to the lack of focus on the deeper issues. Like for instance as much as we talk of saving humans from extinction by AI, I hear little discussion of what human really means. Along with everyone, I feel the daily pressure to become more machine-like ourselves. Yet there is little acknowledged awareness of this threat. The AGI we build might preserve all of human history and art in exquisite detail, but there may by then be no sentience left to make meaning of it. This is my chief concern.

(For anyone interested, I'm giving a keynote about this at the "Be/Art/Now" Earl Lecture in Berkeley, CA on 1/29/15) -Tim Holmes

Comment author: ChristianKl 31 December 2014 07:36:35PM 2 points [-]

am a sculptor of the human body and a deeply religious person. So I come from a sector far from most others here. That's why I believe I may have a useful perspective.

To be useful you actually have to be able to argue your perspective in more depth. It's quite easy to say that you find the human body important, but alone that's no reason for other people to also find it important.

Comment author: SystemsGuy 26 November 2014 02:50:45AM 2 points [-]

Hi all. I'm a seasoned engineer, BSEE plus MS in Systems Engineering, with a couple of decades in electronics systems architecture, team management, and now organization management. I'm a big picture guy who can still somewhat do the math, but not really much anymore (ahhh, back in the day.......). Myers-Briggs says I'm an INTJ.

I've had some classes and additional practical experience in decision theory, statistics, communications theory, motivation, common biases and fallacies, utility, and such basics. I am beset with an interest in almost everything technical (I'm a T person, with the depth in electronics systems and the breadth in general engineering and technical topics), but heavily skewed to applied technology, not research. The observable world to me seems to be horridly sub-optimized, largely to human short-sightedness and apparent inability to plan ahead or see the bigger picture of their actions. I much like games and what-ifs. Favorite quotes include Einstein's "you can't solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them", an unattributed "people are not rational creatures, but rationalizing", and one I use to limit analysis-paralysis "I can afford to be wrong, but not indecisive".

I am individualistic and introverted by nature, but I've become more socially conscious and communicative as I've progressed in my career and life with wife and kids. I'm here because I'd like for the world to be a more rational place, especially for my children, but honestly my expectations for success are low. I like the moderated format and technically leaning of this site, though to be honest my readings over the last few days indicate the discussions are more like a debate room than a crowd-sourced problem-solving machine. I'm not saying that is bad, but I can't help but wonder where the "action verbs" will come into the game.

Comment author: Vaniver 26 November 2014 03:14:17PM 4 points [-]


I like the moderated format and technically leaning of this site, though to be honest my readings over the last few days indicate the discussions are more like a debate room than a crowd-sourced problem-solving machine. I'm not saying that is bad, but I can't help but wonder where the "action verbs" will come into the game.

Function follows form; a forum website mostly leads to forum-style discussions. But other things are going on in forms that are more conductive to action verbs, like physical meetups or workshops run by CFAR. (And the changes mostly happen in the lives of people reading the site, like you could see in the bragging threads or rationality diaries.)

Comment author: SystemsGuy 27 November 2014 03:23:27AM 1 point [-]

Thank you for the welcome!

I will review CFAR, as at a glace it has some significant clients and at least some success.

There are no meetups near me, it seems.

I appreciate the feedback.

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 November 2014 04:29:03PM 2 points [-]

I like the moderated format and technically leaning of this site, though to be honest my readings over the last few days indicate the discussions are more like a debate room than a crowd-sourced problem-solving machine.

If you have a specific problem that you want to get solved that you think fits the website, feel free to open a thread in discussion.

But I don't think there's no problem solving. Out of the first site at the moment there are:

1) Request for suggestions: ageing and data-mining (The thread is about chosing how the OP focuses his scientific research which is a practical problem)

2) Breaking the vicious cycle (Solving a community problem, that important for some members)

3)The Centre for Effective Altruism is hiring to fill five roles in research, operations and outreach (Recruitment is a clear practical problem)

4) I just increased my Altruistic Effectiveness and you should too (Shares a practical technique about increasing the size of donations)

5) Shop for Charity: how to earn proven charities 5% of your Amazon spending in commission (Practical technique for increasing money going to charity)

6) Memory Improvement: Mnemonics, Tools, or Books on the Topic? (Sharing of practical techniques)

7) I Want To Believe: Rational Edition (Sharing of practical techniques)

8) Financial Effectiveness Repository (Sharing of practical techniques)

9) How to build the skill and the habit of experimentation? (Sharing of practical techniques)

I don't consider that a bad output.

Comment author: salij 10 May 2014 10:10:58PM *  2 points [-]

I grew up in a strict Christian household. I did not seriously question the way I was raised until about 12-13, when I started experiencing depression. I thought something was wrong with me since I was not able to fit in with society, and so I became a frequenter of the self-help section of libraries and bookstores.

My senior year, I journaled that my life goal was to see things objectively, separate from myself, because I realized that seeing things through a faulty lens was what was causing me to suffer. I did not know how to, though.

I did not know that Rationality was the method I was seeking until four years ago, when I was in my second year of university.

In my second year of university, I fell in love with my studies, for I had found something I was passionate about: biblical Hebrew and translation. Even though I was not a Christian anymore, I recognized that the Bible is one of the most important books of Western Civilization, and so I wanted to read it in its original language (both biblical Hebrew for the Hebrew Bible and Koine Greek for the New Testament), since translation is just interpretation. I loved studying this so much that I thought I would go to grad school for it. I was a hard-working student, taking more classes than anyone else I knew, even having to request special permission to do so, and working a part-time job at the same time. I quietly found it amusing when others would complain that they didn't have time to do their schoolwork.

It was around this time that I journaled that I realized for the first time that I was unconscious. I was so depressed at the time that I knew I had to do something to change, but what that something was, I did not know. I had already made a calendar of my life plans. Graduate university. Attend grad or law school. Write some books maybe. Get married. Have kids. Is not that what one does? Is there any other option?

Two weeks after having journaled the above, my friend and I met a brilliant autodidact at the donut shop. I had pre-judged him as an ordinary military man, and I lacked interest in his and my friend's discussion of philosophy (my friend was a philosophy major). I do remember feeling embarrassed when my friend said that this man reminded her of Nietzsche, for I thought: “Geez, I only took one class and I know that this guy’s philosophy is very different from Nietzsche’s.” I felt embarrassed, because I thought that she was making our university education look really bad, and I (though I did not realize it at the time) wanted to defend the university system, since this man told us that the university system was a joke. I moved to another table to study French, because I did not care about their conversation, and I wanted to focus on my studies instead. I had taken only one class in philosophy, and it did not interest me. I found it confusing, and thought it something for people smarter than myself.

They moved over to my table, for some reason that I cannot remember. I continued to study French while they spoke. But then the man mentioned something about the Bible, which caught my interest, since I was studying biblical Hebrew. We got into an argument about the truth of some fact, and he ended up being correct. We then started talking about Kabbalah and esoteric interpretations of the Bible, because I was really into that at the time. He said:

“Do yourself a favor. Study rationality instead. Mysticism will get you nowhere, if you lack method. Understand this: mysticism provides conclusions without method, the method of ratiocination provides the method for obtaining accurate conclusions. How can you know whether the conclusions received from mysticism are valid or invalid, if you lack method of discernment? Western philosophy provides the method, Eastern philosophy provides the conclusions.”

He then referred me to John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic. We went through the first couple of pages together very slowly, and he helped me to understand. We spent the whole night talking. He gave me his copy of the book, which I wrapped in protective covering, and carried around with me everywhere thereafter, although it was heavy, as though it were my Bible. I copied out the definition of almost every word in it. I still have the document of that. I started doing this to important books that I could not initially understand. I called them “treatments” of books, and I later learned that they are similar to medieval glosses.

The day after I met him, even on no sleep, I spent the entire day in the library, copying out the Oxford English Dictionary (foolish, now that I reflect, but perhaps a necessary unnecessary step), and researching all the concepts he had introduced me to. I was so excited; I felt like I was embarking on a great journey; this was the opportunity I had been waiting for, the opportunity to begin living. That was the first day I neglected my schoolwork at university. Even just after a brief introduction to Logic, my classes started becoming unbearable. French was the only class that was OK to me, because it was a language class. But I was taking a class on the American Revolution, in which class we were quizzed on our teacher’s opinion about the founders being exploitative capitalists, and my suffering increased exponentially. I knew that I could not go on existing the same way I had before I had begun my study of logic. I started plotting dropping out of university.

Right after I began plotting, my summer classes ended, and I went to Europe and then to an archaeological dig in Israel, since it had already been planned. I did not enjoy my travels as much as I probably would have before. I was still fascinated by all the historical sites, and the beautiful landscapes, but being around people was becoming more and more unbearable, as they became more and more predictable, and I just wanted to return to my studies and solitude. Whereas before, I used to love talking to, and was even unusually trustful of people, particularly strangers, which could have gotten me into some serious danger, but, as things have turned out, they did not.

I got back to the States, cancelled my housing contract (pissing off my housemates in the process) because I wanted to be financially independent from my parents who were paying for my rent, dropped out, and started sleeping in the woods. I lost almost all of my “friends” at this time, who thought I had joined a cult, or that I wanted strength so much that I wouldn't be fun anymore, or that I was having an "identity crisis."

Two years after devoting myself to the self-study of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (giving myself the Trivium education which I wished I would have gotten in my earlier years), I directed my attention to Sir Bacon's inductive/experimental method, realizing that Logic was not enough- for logic concerns itself primarily with the evaluation of propositions as a whole, and does not provide method of discernment as to whether the Names of the Subject/Predicate in the propositions are indeed based in reality. My most recent development has been, a couple of weeks ago, stumbling across LessWrong and HPMOR, and it was much needed. I am with much gratitude towards Mr. Yudkowsky, and the LessWrong community.

Thus has begun my journey.

Comment author: anonym 27 February 2009 11:16:45PM 2 points [-]

A critical thinking class in which nothing was sacred and everything was suspect. We spent a semester uncovering the fallacies, lies, and manipulative rhetorical devices in advertisements, television and movies, government propaganda (related to sex, drugs, the military, etc.), journalistic publications, academic papers, wisdom our parents taught us, and much else.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 February 2009 11:59:16PM 3 points [-]

Where was the class? What did you read?

Comment author: anonym 28 February 2009 02:14:21AM 3 points [-]

The class was at college (in the USA). And I ended up reading philosophy (I assume you meant your question in the British sense of read), which I partly regret. It would have been better to do math at school and philosophy on the side, rather than the reverse.

Comment author: Jason 27 February 2009 01:55:27PM *  2 points [-]

Reading Thaler's Anomalies' series for my Intro to Behavioral Econ class during undergrad- oddly enough, I hadn't before questioned the validity of the rational actor model.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 February 2009 11:05:57AM *  2 points [-]

Added a post scriptum, see above.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 February 2009 11:31:48AM *  8 points [-]

Could you specify what you mean by "getting the transition started" or "crossing the first divide"? I'm surprised by the question.

In both my own history and the people around me (both people I know from rationalist communities, and people more representative of the broader American public), I tend to see fairly continuous gradations of rationalist skill and of rationalist disposition/goals, without an obvious "first step" to notice.

Comment author: Raw_Power 15 December 2010 03:36:12AM 1 point [-]

I think he's looking for a trigger we can activate in normal people. But I've read most of these stories and so far it seems the vast majority among us had a natural disposition for this ever since babydom. We could ask those who 'didn't have that disposition to give more details?

Comment author: bmon 27 February 2009 08:39:01AM *  2 points [-]

I've resolved not to blame myself as much as I used to, I was young and not at all sure how to deal with the fact that my dad was dying. That and I didn't quite know he was dying, as my parents effectively told us lies of omission about his condition. That's part of what lead me to understand that there are real evils in this world, a realization which put me on track to being the best I can be...

Anyway, I know now that I was only quasi-rational then, and that this was partially the cause my mistakes. Mistakes which caused grief and wretchedness that I can sometimes hardly bare. I'm on track now though - never again.

Comment author: Cassandra 27 February 2009 06:18:01AM 3 points [-]

I believed very strongly that my mind was not functioning correctly and I wanted to find techniques to be able to sort through what was real and not real. This led me to begin a very rigorous program of self-examination where I picked at and questioned everything that I am and might become. I continue to do this now but I have learned that I at least seem surprisingly sane compared to my previous view of my self. I have also always had a very strong sense of curiosity tied up with a very impulsive nature. Over time I just experimented with all sorts of things with not much fear of the consequences.

What really turned me on to rationalism specifically was Eliezer's posting on Overcoming Bias. He inspired me to try to go into the field of math and science in large part because I couldn't understand barely anything he said and what I did understand supported several pre-conceived notions I held that made me feel superior to other people.

Trying to fix that now. Yep.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 March 2009 06:26:31AM *  4 points [-]

I might not be a rationalist by Eliezer's definition. Eliezer said that there must be a rational solution to Newcomb's paradox. I find that belief irrational. (Although there may be a rational solution to Newcomb's paradox.) Rationalists don't have faith in rationalism.

Comment author: insaneabd 01 March 2009 06:22:51PM 4 points [-]

Or maybe the evidence he has justifies his belief in the possible solution to the paradox, and similarly for you. Its only after you two share your evidence and fail to agree that one of you can be called a non-rationalist (on these grounds).

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 March 2009 09:17:07PM 4 points [-]

No. He believes he has a proof now. But he said that he tried to build a proof because, before finding a proof, he believed there must be a proof - and it seems, from what he wrote, that he found the lack of such a proof offensive. That's faith.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 March 2009 09:20:07PM *  4 points [-]

That's a mixture of Trust in Bayes and the original driving purpose that causes me to define the word "rationality" a certain way. In any case, I did find an elegant answer and so I have no reason to label the driving intuitions involved as wrong.

Comment author: HalFinney 27 February 2009 06:48:17AM 3 points [-]

Perhaps a more fundamental question is, why do you want to be "rational"? Where rational means, as Eliezer suggests, less wrong, more right(!), more accurate in your beliefs.

It seems obvious that there are practical advantages to being more accurate on many issues. Choosing what route to drive to work, deciding whether to bring an umbrella, wondering if you should ask so-and-so out, you want to get it right.

OTOH there are well established situations and circumstances where you will do better to be wrong. You'll often do better to agree with your social peers, especially on issues where being wrong has little negative impact, like who should be President.

So what is the "rational" thing to do, given these realities? Is it really rational to seek after truth knowing that it is going to hurt you? Wouldn't a true rationalist try to improve his circumstances and maximize his happiness, choosing to accept that this will mean believing falsehoods?

Comment author: mayonesa 18 August 2010 08:55:53PM 2 points [-]

When I was a child, I read the classics of literature and philosophy and quickly became a realist.

I don't say I'm a rationalist because rationalism implies a universal quality to human judgment, when empirical evidence convinces me no such thing exists.

Since then, I've left behind liberalism (pure emotion, defensiveness) and become a conservative realist, monarchist, conservationist and idealist (in the Kant/Schopenhauer sense).

Comment author: Peterdjones 10 September 2012 12:50:43PM -2 points [-]

Monarchist? There's a rational justification for Monarchy? Tom Paine must be doing 1000rpm!

Comment author: ErikM 10 September 2012 01:28:58PM 5 points [-]

Here's one: less jockeying for power. Monarchs don't need to pander to interest groups to get elected.

Comment author: wedrifid 10 September 2012 01:55:53PM 7 points [-]

Monarchs don't need to pander to interest groups to get elected.

Merely to keep their heads attached.

Comment author: Peterdjones 10 September 2012 01:44:25PM 3 points [-]

I'll. say. They don't need to take anyone else's interests into account. It would take a rather special kind of mind to treat self-interest as admirable detachment.

Comment author: Kellopyy 28 February 2009 12:44:25PM 2 points [-]

At best I might call myself aspiring rationalist (like Kenny elsewhere in this thread suggested) because I fail very often as rationalist.

As for experiences that have led me to try to be more rational...

I read Sophie's world[1] when I was about 14 years old and that inspired me to think I how I could tell if I wasn't actually living in a 'real world'.

I was curious about different beliefs humans have in my teens and if there might be truth to some of those beliefs (and which ones). After finding local christianity unsatisfying for several reasons and looking for alternatives I ended up reading a spell on internet forum that had a strong point about what works [2]

After enrolling to study psychology I read and completed excercises in SICP[3] for various reasons. It was very inspiring to read and especially 4. chapter (Metalinguistic abstraction) was very enlightening. I think that both programming and learning psychology both increased my yearning for being more rational.

There could be other events too.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie's_World
  2. http://www.chaosmatrix.org/library/chaos/rites/buff.html
  3. http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/
Comment author: Kenny 27 February 2009 05:12:46AM 2 points [-]

The Fountainhead

Comment author: [deleted] 02 March 2009 04:03:33AM 2 points [-]

I don't remember BECOMING a rationalist, just going through life thinking how stupid everyone was.

When I was seven or so, I asked my mother if she and dad believed in god, and she gave some handwavy answer about believing in a kind of magical force to the universe, like in star wars, and I thought "Boy, that's stupid."

I don't use the word "rationalist" to refer to myself, because it throws me in with you lot, most of whom I still think are stupid.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 03 March 2009 03:25:10PM *  2 points [-]

By this logic you may as well not call yourself a human, "because most humans are stupid".

Comment author: [deleted] 04 March 2009 08:33:33PM 4 points [-]

To my way of thinking, "rationalist" has a certain stink to it, it has connotations of people sitting around arguing about arguing, writing pages of tedious probability math using "prior probabilities" they pulled out of their asses.

In one sense, being a rationalist just means that you try to be rational. But it seems like a stupid thing to wear on your sleeve, because everybody tries to be rational.

There's a sense in which objectivism is just the belief that reality is mind-independent. But I don't go around calling myself an objectivist either.

Comment author: Nick_Novitski 13 March 2009 05:27:38PM 2 points [-]

Not everyone tries to be rational. Some people despise rationality because of the same stink you attribute to it, or because of others. To them it might connote atheism, or linking themselves to low-status entities like "the man" or "the sheeple."

A rational person is someone who applies rationality. A rationalist is someone who advocates the application of rationality, just as a racist is someone who argues the fundamental importance of racial status and history, or a "homosexualist" is someone who (purportedly) wants to make homosexuality part of all our lives.

There's a dangerous potential to be confused between (for example) "objectivity" (the belief you mention) and "objectivism" (membership in the low-status group you mention).

Comment author: hoofwall 11 April 2015 11:53:23AM 1 point [-]

After seeing an image I thought was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen I tried to create an imaginary friend of her and after she became established enough in my mind I guess, she immediately gave me ideas on what it truly meant to be right(which was a first to me since my philosophy on everything was very unfortunate prior) and I've been effectively living vicariously through her since...

Comment author: Tripitaka 21 March 2011 02:49:03PM *  1 point [-]

Having been born/brought up in germany, where religion is almost a nontopic, I always read Science Fiction/Fantasy and always felt inclined to rational decisions. In my 12/13th year of school I had an exceptional good philosophy teacher, and found myself to find Utilitarism on some level logical. Again some years later (some before the time of the comment) I finally updated my mind/made the rational conclusion:

I should choose the most efficient path to reduce suffering in the world. I saw only two conclusions, getting really rich or becoming a successful uncorrupted politican. Since I was to lazy, felt not being able to assign relevant probability to reach either of these goals, and did not want to overthrow my other ethical views (dont become a power-hungry-politician or bad capitalist) I did not pursue it further. I started to study mechanical engineering, it gives like, A LOT of money and will enable me to further suffering-reducing technology.

Then I stumbled upon Eliezer Yudkowskis argument: most bang for the buck/euro by accelerating FAI. A better writer than myself wrote:

" I felt my entire ethical system restructuring over the course of about five seconds - a very peculiar feeling, let me tell you."-and lost focus again due to having a completely broken motivation system and psychological problems- I am running on even faultier hardware than most. I am working on both topics now. Around nine months later I discovered HP-MOR via TV-Tropes-recommended FanFics and voila- here I am. Right now I am taking my time to decide wether or not I really assign FAI à la Yudkowski any relevant probability or its just a lazy excuse, and wether its cultish salvatory-aspects do worry me or thats just some kind of bias. Updating ones mind is hard!

Comment author: waveman 17 January 2011 12:18:06AM *  1 point [-]

On one account, our rational brains exist to provide convincing rationalizations for our actions for the benefit of other people. Often the stories we tell ourselves are a lot of cobblers.

E.g. We invaded Iraq to the Iraqui people can be free, or to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction (not because of their oil!).

I will try to tell the true story of my conversion from religion.

I was about 12 years old. My parents were forcing me to be 'confirmed'. As part of this I had to make various affirmations. At that age my brain, incited by various hormones, was waking up from the slumber of childhood and beginning to feel the need for autonomy. My reaction was simple: my parents had the power, through threats and violence, to force me to do what they wanted, but they could not control what I believed. I still remember the moment of 'confirmation' - I said the words but I did not believe them.

From that time on, I thought of myself as an atheist, but I retained a fascination for religion. Some of my best friends are religious to the point of having theology degrees.

It was only when I read Nietzsche that I realized that, like most people who thought of themselves as atheists, I had not really shaken off Christianity. One thing about Christianity that proved hard to shake off was the notion that feelings can be sinful/evil.

A year reading pre- and non- Christian writings has helped to remedy that somewhat. Read Homer and see what a different world we live in post-Christianity.

Comment author: ShiroiTora 28 August 2010 09:21:03AM 1 point [-]

I wish I had a great story to tell...I do not. I am a very simple man...with a simple mind. My memory is terrible....for me to remember things...I must understand concepts. There never was a time that I have thought differently...I have never been religious...I am an Atheist. I operate on basic country common sense. I am neither highly educated nor am I especially intelligent.

I argue essential points for its pragmatic value. If an argument is purely an academic one....one in which the answer holds no value to true application in life...I do not value it.

My understanding of Rationalism:

Rationalism is simply the way of understanding, in what is, the simplest, most effective and efficient manner. To know what is...what was...what will be...and to correct wrong by giving the what should be. In short...the scientific method.

If I am wrong....please tell me...I am the above...whatever name has been given it.

Comment author: Cyan 28 February 2009 06:32:18AM *  1 point [-]

My origin story began when I stumbled across Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. From it, I learned that I didn't have to make up an ad hoc method for grappling with uncertainty each time I encountered a new data analytic problem, and that the general rules encompass a great deal more that data analysis.

Comment author: steven0461 27 February 2009 09:08:57PM 1 point [-]

I could never stand when people made thinking mistakes, especially me.

I got into OB-style rationalism via Eliezer's writings on the Thing Not To Be Named. I got into that subject via >H and futurist sites (McCarthy, Bostrom, Sandberg, Pearce, Moravec, Hanson).

Comment author: pre 27 February 2009 03:09:41PM *  1 point [-]

I don't know really, certainly I can recall no specific incident. I suspect just the lessons in logic needed to learn to program computers properly, the basic lessons in the scientific method taught at school.

My folks are Christian, and I was still at Sunday School till I was about 14, but not really taking it seriously, still going just for the sake of a quiet life. By the time I was 18 at Uni I was certainly talking friends out of their theism, mostly by pointing out contradictions in their beliefs and challenging others to find some in mine. Then altering my beliefs when they occasionally found some.

Frankly my memory of my childhood is so appalling it'd be hard to have any confidence in a story if I told one.

Here we are nearly twenty years after that and drifting across a couple of OB posts from Eliezer through links elsewhere, probably during the QM series, maybe a bit before, led me to put OB into my RSS feed.

I'm always so far behind reading my RSS feed that feels like the discussion is over by the time I read anything there though, so never posted.


Comment author: Florent 27 February 2009 10:54:23AM 1 point [-]

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who claimed he was able to use telekinesis to move glasses. Strangely, when I asked him to show us his talent, it was never the good time ("I'm too tired", "it's too dangerous"...). From then I started questionning every weird claims/beliefs.

Later, as a teenager, I understood that the most important thing to do was, well... doing as much good as possible in the world (quite obvious indeed, but not for kids, and not for most adults - just try to ask them what is the most important thing they can think of).

I then thought that an effective way to do good was to remove pain, and I became a transhumanist. The achievement of an AGI became my strongest wish. But since I'm neither a cognitive scientist nor a programmer, I chose to raise the public awareness by making a movie.

I've been on this project for several months now, this will be a kind of Permutation City but with REAL fun (needless to say I totally agree with Eliezer's latest posts about utopias). I don't know how long it will take to do it, or even if it will even be made, but I think it has a huge potential.

Ok, I haven't talked only about the origins, but, well, that's my rationalist story.

Comment author: nitrat665 26 March 2015 08:57:22AM *  1 point [-]

Here is the story of my path to becoming a rationalist.

As far as I remember myself, I used to read anything I could get my hands on – my mom even jokes sometimes that I learned to read before I learned how to speak. So, long story short, at some point, when I was about 5-6 years old, I got my hands on a Bible. Having thoroughly studied that particular document, I decided to go forth and become baptized. I guess that I am one of the rare cases of child baptism being a somewhat educated decision – at least, I took time to familiarize myself with the tenets of my religion and made the decision to convert myself.

While my parents are not particularly religious, they took my request well enough (you want to go to church? Fine, enjoy yourself and don’t forget to come back in time for dinner!), and so I was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church. I did not become a severely religious child, but I did attend church of my own volition once in a while (though, honestly, most of the times I found that reading cool adventures of Philistine-slaying Jewish heroes in the Bible was significantly more fun than church attendance).

As time went on, though, I became increasingly interested in science. As a result, eventually, starting from the age of 8 - 10 or so I started getting my hands on some science fiction, then textbooks and encyclopedias on biology, geology, chemistry and physics. At the same time, I have discovered that there are various religious paths in the world other that Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Paganism (of the latter two, I knew from the Bible). Well, actually, I also knew quite a lot about the Greeko-Roman pantheon a lot too by that time, but I generally considered those a fantasy story sort of thing, not a religious path. So, as the amount of information available to my mind grew, I started getting less and less satisfied with the Christian interpretation of the world.

By the time I entered high school, I started roaming around, trying to get a sense of what kind of religion would be satisfactory to explain the observed reality. For some time I fluctuated around, once in a while picking a religion and trying it on to see if its explanations would fit, however, most of them failed. I looked into writings of some esoteric authors – out of those guys, I most fondly remember a Russian esoteric writer Daniel Andreyev, who wrote a book called “Rose of the World” about unity between different religions. I looked into Buddhism, and I still retain the thought that if there is any religion that is “less wrong” than the others, Buddhism might be it. I tried to embrace the communist doctrine. I have spent some of my teenage time being a typical straw-man atheist of the type that yells at old babushkas “Your god is an illusion, fool! Repent! Everything is biochemistry and physics!” (Yes, I was an obnoxious youth at times.) I also tried to invent my own religion or three, though I wasn’t successful in making one that would suffice for explaining the reality or converting people. Those particular attempts, no doubt, did not help my public image at school at that time, so a lot of people thought I was nuts. However, I should say, trying to make my own religion was fun, and if I ever get enough time to sit down and write a fantasy novel (I do get that temptation once in a while), I will have some material ready and waiting for me from back then. And all the while, I studied more and more science, winning at some major competitions and preparing for college. My primary interest at that time ended up in Chemistry.

When time came for me to go get my undergraduate education, it happened so that I ended up going into a Christian school in America (for a major in Chemistry and Maths, though). Being surrounded by Christians (well-educated Christians too, who could argue their points and solve some of the difficulties I was facing) cooled me down for a while, so I became a somewhat satisfied Christian for a while again. Yet, as time passed, I still found that Christianity couldn’t provide me a satisfactory world model, even as explained by the trained theologians at my school. As I did not want to raise a scandal, I ended up maintaining my image of a functional Christian until I graduated, but by the time I left school I was certain that whatever I may honestly call myself, it is not Christian.

With time, as I encountered more materials on atheist and rationalist philosophy I lost the remaining shreds of my religious needs, and gradually became an atheist and stayed one ever since (a bit of an anti-climax to that exciting story, i guess). Similarly, with the rest of rationality both instrumental and fundamental, as my knowledge of the world grew, I ended up updating my beliefs more and becoming a more generally rational person as well. So, I guess I never went through a dramatic deconversion or rationalist awakening – in the end, I feel I just grew up.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 December 2013 12:13:34PM 1 point [-]

Hello. I don't identify as a rationalist. I try not to identify at all, but I fail: next best thing, I identify as 'urban scum' - a term I use in an idiosyncratic sense. Individualist, pro-freedom (not necessarily liberal), self-reliant, network-conscious, versatile. A hippy, maybe. And a discordian. The story is very long, so I'll condense it: for a variety of reasons (not least of which were the encounters between my grandparents/parents and WWII), I came out of childhood as somewhat damaged goods. I emigrated from my native Hungary in 1986, at age 17, and lived in the UK for 9 years. Then I moved back. I haven't had a job for about 26 years now: I don't think I could hack it. Working at home, using a variety of professions is my ideal. Having your smarts about you and distinguishing between neocortical and older urges is an important part of that. But I don't think that a rational stance is all there is to life: in fact, I think most of what there is to life is not available from a purely rational stance. So there. :)

Comment author: Epsilon725 18 May 2013 09:08:48PM 1 point [-]

For as far back as I can remember, I have always been a Rationalist, even before I knew what it was. I'd examine something from all angles, and think about things most people from my home town would not even consider. I saw this as me being smarter than them. I actually am smarter than them, but not only for that reason.

I could never really relate to anyone, back home. I saw them as dumb, uneducated, boring people that refused to think about anything. They openly refused to understand logic. They were stupid. They wasted their childhoods failing school and playing football and joining gangs. And I was not into that sort of things.

I was alone. I was a nerdy shut-in that would rather read than go outside, because Outside was where all the boring people lived.

My parents sent me to Archbishop McGrath Catholic school, becuase my parents thought it would be hilarious to send me, an athiest, to a catholic school. I wasted asn entire year-and-a-half excluded from everything. I woke up, I went to 'School', I sat in a corner, and when my hours were done, I'd go home. I'd read books and watch anime, and then go to sleep late at night. Sometimes, I'd stay up all night reading, and sleep during the day. They didn't care. I wasn't religious, and I'd never be.

I should porbalby menion that back then, I was a wimpy, pathetic doormat. I might sound absurd for blaming my parents, but they used to be physically and emotionally abusive. Now, they are only emotionally abusive.

Eventually, I was in a road accident caused by the Art Teacher, when she drove her car into me. They covered it up, had me expelled, and spread lies about me.

I was diagnosed with Aspergers, because apparently, there's a disorder for the smartass-ness that I developed as a defence mechanism, and the aversion to touch that my parents gave me. "Is your kid not normal? Don't worry, it's not your fault! There's a disorder for that!"

I was sent to Heronsbridge School, a "Special School", where I wasted 3 years of my life colouring in line drawings of puppies, and answering what 2+2 is on every baby worksheet they can download and print in front of me.

I stayed firmly Rational, to try and keep everyone's emotional abuse from hurting me. Their opinions and belief regarding me are illogical. They are based on predetermined guesses and assumptions, rather than observation or fact. Therefore, I should not be bothered by the fact that I am despised and hated by everyone in school, at home, even in my own home. My parents call me a disappointment and a failure. Even though they sent me to these places.

At that time, I thought it was Logical. Like Spock, and the Vulcans. I did not know about Rationalism back then, and I thought it was called 'Logical'. I liked how it prevented me from feeling bad about my life, and allowed me to focus on Writing, rather than falling into a despairing wangsting emo-pile.

Because I'm probably not going to be able to get a job without any qualifications or grades, I'm going to make money by becoming a writer.

I have already written a few books, mostly fanfics and original stories. I have taught myself to write books.

Anyway, I recently came upon a certain fanfic. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I downloaded an audiobook of it, so I can listen to it at night, when I can;t use my 3DS or Laptop.

I really, really like that that fic had done to Harry. I read the TvTropes page for that fic, and then I looked at LessWrong.

One of the comments I saw, about a funny webcomic, claimed that "It was a perfect depiction" of a certain logical fallacy, I cannot remeber which one. At that point, I found what I had always dreamed of: An entire website full of smart, rational people. I didn't have to be alone anymore. I could meet and befriend people as smart as me. I could meet and befriend people smarter than me. I could even learn new things, and that sealed the deal for me. I suppose I should find it odd that my 'School' is where I relax and sleep, and my 'Home' is where I feel bad, and my 'Free time' is when I learn. But honestly, I'm finally learning, so I'm okay with it.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 December 2012 09:06:25PM 1 point [-]

Well, I'm not quite sure if I'd say I have a "story", but there was definitely a series of factors that pushed me toward becoming a rationalist. As a child, any time I was involved in some sort of group vote, upon winning or losing (being in the majority or minority), I noticed that my desire was focused more on whether I won or lost, rather than whether the agreement the majority reached was fair or not. I suddenly stopped being a majoritarian, and began seeking the right answer, rather than the "right" answer. This was further reinforced by subsequent uses of rhetoric I noticed people using to strengthen their arguments. I thought "this person is using connotations rather than logic to make himself sound right, if he actually believed he was right he wouldn't need to do that". Soon enough, I realized that I didn't care much for winning arguments, I just wanted to be on the side of it that's correct. Mario party also helped because it got me thinking not just about what to do to win (forward planning) but also whether a win was earned or handed out by luck (backward analysis).

Comment author: learnmethis 23 October 2012 01:54:28AM 1 point [-]

I’ve got kind of a fun rationalist origin story because I was raised in a hyper-religious setting and pretty much invented rationalism for use in proselytisation. This placed me on a path of great transformation in my own personal beliefs, but one that has never been marked by a “loss of faith” scenario, which in my experience seems atypical. I’m happy to type it up if anyone’s interested, but so far the lack of action on comments I make to old posts has me thinking that could be a spectacularly wasted effort. Vote, comment, or pm to show interest.

Comment author: Epiphany 12 August 2012 08:01:59AM *  1 point [-]

"How do you interest people in rationality?" is a question I have been thinking about for a very long time. The most important insights I have into this are below.

How I crossed the first divide:

There was a sense of being expected to think for myself by my peers as a teen - the "think for yourself" mantra was a core part of our culture. This seems especially relevant because peer pressure gets through to people who aren't rational.

After being influenced by the "think for yourself" mantra that was being repeated by the other teens, I was motivated to start observing that there were flaws in the ideas being presented to me.

Realizing that there were flaws everyplace was key. I had to realize that even the adults were wrong, even teachers could be wrong, even books could be wrong, authorities could be wrong, all of it could be wrong. I needed to see examples of incorrect information in each category before I woke up to the fact that every possible source of information could have flaws in it. I would not have believed there was a problem if I hadn't seen it myself. Without that, I would not have been interested in the solution.

A critical aspect of this was in realizing that really important information could be wrong. I also needed to know how wrong information affected me. Not everyone is going to notice so many flaws on their own and realize the implications - especially if they haven't developed their thinking skills very far. I was lucky to be able to do this for myself. I think a lot of people will benefit from it if you show them how the dots are connected, as they may not have been taught the skills to do it themselves.

I have observed that if you overwhelm a person with too many shocking problems at once, it's too much for them, they go into denial and reject you entirely. If I wanted to wake a person up to the fact that that the world is full of incorrect information, that it can be found even in important places, and that they are likely to have learned a lot of incorrect information, I would use baby steps.

After I knew that there was a problem, it had to occur to me that the solution was to avoid accepting new incorrect information and to go through and correct all my existing information. For me, the idea of correcting the information was obvious. For some, it may not be (they may choose drugs, or some other escape) so if I were to present people with the problem, I would also describe the solution well enough that they felt that there was an option for them that is likely to work.

Then, there was a sense of trepidation. You don't sound like you had this experience, but consider this: Most people grow up in a culture full of irrationality with no knowledge of logical fallacies and an underdeveloped ability to think critically... let alone any idea what Bayes's Theorem is. They have too few defenses against irrationality, so they end up building their entire lives on this mixture of irrational beliefs and whatever facts manage to make it through. There is (for lack of a known term for this) an "information debt" - very much like software debt (for anyone who doesn't know, software debt happens when you code your program in a way where it is so disorganized that it needs to be reprogrammed before you can build on it - this is called refactoring and it can be very time-consuming). You don't have to be a coding genius to immediately sense that taking apart your beliefs and refactoring them is going to be a gigantic job, and that it's going to be super complicated. Becoming a rationalist is a huge investment to anyone who has an information debt of any size. Most people weren't lucky enough to have developed thinking skills as a child... a lot of people have this huge debt of wrong information to correct.

In addition to the sense of needing to invest a lot of time, I was afraid of what would happen if I challenged my current world view and it fell apart. What if I wasn't able to put it all back together after I took it apart? Can that make you crazy?

To make things worse, the fact that I had never been exposed to even so much as a list of logical fallacies meant that I had NO CLUE that tools existed to help you figure out the difference between true information and false information. I felt like I was opening Pandora's box.

In my case, the way I overcame the trepidation was in asking myself questions about what would happen if I left my world view the way it was. This resulted in more trepidation than the idea of correcting it, so I chose to make the massive investment and take the risk of making a huge mess of myself.

That's how I became a rationalist.

I think, though, that anything you can do to reduce the sense of trepidation is a necessity. For instance, letting people know that there are powerful tools to cut through these would empower more people to choose to become rationalists.

Once I discovered logical fallacies, I found myself referring back to them after I got into an argument with someone. They make excellent self-defense weapons. I think they might become popular and serve as a positive introduction to rationality if they were presented as a solution to the problem of losing arguments. After all, it does feel pretty cool to be a logical ninja - able to win the majority of my arguments. (:

The above was my dissection of how I became a rationalist. The story version has been written up and saved for later. I'd have added it here, but I didn't want to make my comment a billion pages long.

Comment author: UngnsCobra 01 April 2012 12:13:19PM 1 point [-]

(I'm sorry about the grammar etc, hope the content comes through) I was 17, when I first had a "burst" of enlightenment, it was more or less the time I started to think critically for myself, coming from a society that I found to be very narrow minded, I at that point felt an urge to read more, learn more and be better. I heavily started to write about my experience's and yielded a great content from it. I naively adopted the notion that: we are what we sculptures us into, our potential is unrealised and too wide and deep to be generalised. With this mantra I came a long way through school, but came out on top without a narrative and started to lack, not being aware of the fact that I was starting to indulge more and more into biases, and the results of my operations started to decline. Then I felt like on a degree of rationality and "winning" I took some steps back. Then around 1.5 years ago in one of my courses at University I started to study the "perception model" and through trajectory I came across books by Nassim Taleb, Malcom Gladwell and finally Bias and Heurestics by Kahneman and Tversky. And after that I have just been rolling along those lines.

Comment author: FeatherlessBiped 30 December 2011 11:36:38PM 1 point [-]

If by "rationalist", the LW community means someone who believes it is possible and desirable to make at least the most important judgements solely by the use of reason operating on empirically demonstrable facts, then I am an ex-rationalist. My "intellectual stew" had simmered into it several forms of formal logic, applied math, and seasoned with a BS in Computer Science at age 23.

By age 28 or so, I concluded that most of the really important things in life were not amenable to this approach, and that the type of thinking I had learned was useful for earning a living, but was woefully inadequate for other purposes.

At age 50, I am still refining the way I think. I come to LW to lurk, learn, and (occasionally) quibble.

Comment author: Kutta 31 December 2011 12:06:28AM 1 point [-]

Welcome to Less Wrong!

You might want to post your introduction in the current official "welcome" thread.

... then I am an ex-rationalist.

LW's notion of rationality differs greatly from what you described. You may find our version more palatable.

Comment author: soreff 01 January 2012 12:35:18AM *  1 point [-]

I'm probably also an ex-rationalist. Simply looking at the list of biases that I should really be correcting for in making a decision under uncertainty is rather intimidating. I'd like to be right - but do I really want to be right that much?

Frankly, the fact that I still maintain a cryonics membership is really status quo bias: I set that up before

  • Reading The Crack of a Future Dawn - downgrade by 2X if uploads/ems dominate and are impoverished to the point of being on the edge of survivable subsistence.

  • Watching the repugnant Leon Kass lead a cheerleading section for the grim reaper from the chairmanship of W's bioethics council. Extending human lifespans is a hard enough technical problem - but I hadn't imagined that there was going to be a whole faction on the side of death. Downgrade the odds by another 2X if there is a faction trying to actively keep cryonicists dead.

  • Watching Watson perform impressively in an open problem domain. The traditional weakness of classical AI has been brittleness, breaking spectacularly on moving outside of a very narrow domain. That firewall against ufAI has now been breached. Yet another downgrade of 2X for this hazard gaining strength...

Comment author: Nick_Roy 12 July 2011 11:09:10PM 1 point [-]

I resolved my typical adolescent existential crisis (for the time being) in a somewhat atypical fashion, concluding after much deliberation that I ought to pause the crisis until I know what's True and what's not, which might mean pausing it forever.

How can I resolve an existential crisis without knowing what meaning, purpose, value, etc. Truly are? Rationality makes the most persuasive claim to the distillation of Truth, so I am an aspiring rationalist.

Comment author: Simulacra 17 April 2009 12:59:43AM 1 point [-]

For me it began as a bored student picking up a book on probability (specifically Randomness by Deborah Bennet) and discovering my understanding of probability was seriously wrong. Following that discovery and armed with my improved understanding I began to look at what other ideas and beliefs might be flawed. I started with those beliefs that were most likely to be based on probabilities and found that nearly everything I thought was true was affected by a single inaccuracy. My mind has burned with a single question ever since: "What else is polluting my mind?"

As for how I found OB; if I recall correctly I was reading up on AI and happened upon one of Eli's posts. Fascinated, I jumped from post to post and found myself deep in rationalist territory. I found home.

Comment author: outlawpoet 27 February 2009 05:02:42AM 1 point [-]

I first began to separate the concept of truth-seeking from specific arguments of fact late in life, as a teenage catholic who was given a copy of The Case Against God.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 February 2009 04:42:57AM *  1 point [-]

I read my father's issues of Skeptical Inquirer magazine as a kid. So, well, I basically grew up in this kind of culture.

(I comment as "Doug S." on Overcoming Bias.)

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 February 2009 07:40:23AM 4 points [-]

But the Skeptics aren't even very good traditional rationalists. They are just a step up from the Objectivists and four or five steps up from mainstream America.
The question is about when you started looking for sometimes lonely truth in places where people normally look for affiliation.