Feb. 6th, 2017

wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (dorian)
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - Eliezer Yudkowsky
This is a novel-length piece of fanfiction, which follows an alt-universe plot loosely paralleling that of The Philosopher’s Stone, where instead of Vernon Dursley, Petunia Evans marries an Oxford professor of physics, so Harry is brought up as a sceptic and a scientist, and after being selected for Hogwarts, starts trying to apply what he’s learned previously to the study of magic.

I was a little bit sceptical about it, because I find EY incredibly irritating on social media, and thought that his attempts to evangelise his philosophical ideas through fiction might be equally annoying. I was wrong. It was entertaining, emotionally engaging from start to finish, often laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally moved me to tears, all the while opening me up to and convincing me of its philosophical underpinnings. 10/10 would recommend to anyone who doesn’t hate Harry Potter.

Rationality: AI to Zombies - Eliezer Yudkowsky
This is a long and multifaceted book in six volumes with lots of diversions. It originally took form as a series of blog posts, and whilst they have been edited for coherence, it still feels rather bitty. There’s lots of good stuff in the earlier sections on why rationality matters and ways in which we convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. One aspect that was a bit off-putting for me personally was the constant use of theism as an example of irrational thinking, which meant I was spending less time absorbing the general principles of his arguments and more time going round in circles that I’ve been round many times before as to whether I can justify my faith. There’s a bunch of stuff about biases and cognition which wasn’t new to me, but I felt was presented well.

Some parts, primarily the philosophy of science and consciousness, I found it very hard to understand what he was saying. I’m not sure if this is just material that is beyond my ability to understand, or was explained poorly. There were sections on quantum dynamics, specifically arguing the obvious correctness of the many worlds interpretation which sounded relatively convincing, but I don’t know if I would agree after understanding the maths and the actual arguments from those proposing collapse. I’ve seen people claiming that his understanding of the physics is lacking, but I’m not currently in a position to judge.

I thought the intuitive explanation of Bayes theorem was pretty good (but I’m not the target audience), and I thought the concept behind the extension of this into a “Technical explanation of technical explanation” was good, but that the conclusions come into conflict with concerns about privileging the hypothesis. It seems as though it was boiling down to “it’s okay, indeed desirable, to privilege a hypothesis if it turns out to be right”. I found myself extremely suspicious of the whole analysis of the conflict between science and rationality, and although I can grant his point that we need some way of making decisions about what is true in cases where performing the experiments is very difficult or even impossible even in principle, he seemed a little bit too enthusiastic about careering off down that road.

Once it came back to ethical philosophy in the penultimate volume I found it much more enjoyable and easier reading again, and the final volume about how to make rationalism work in the real world was quite inspiring. II would definitely note that my perception of the quality of his writing and arguments correlated strongly with the areas where I already agreed with him, suggesting that he may not have presented them as well as I felt he did, and that all I’m seeing is a reflection of longer and shorter inferential distances.

Six Easy Pieces - Richard Feynman
One thing that I got out of the previous book was a great long list of stuff I want to read and learn more about, and fairly high on that list is quantum mechanics. Only one of these six lectures touched on QM more than very superficially (and even that one was pretty superficial), but it was a good memory jog of the basic physics which I’d forgotten lots of, and of course delightful reading in Feynman’s characteristic style.


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