Eryk Banatt's Reviews > Rationality: Abridged

Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky
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really liked it

It may be perhaps dishonest to review this as if it were a book proper, since this is more like a 120 page sparknotes of Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Rationality: From AI to Zombies". But, being that I've gotten something like 700 pages into R:FAtZ so far, I felt that it would be useful to have something like this handy as to not forget the entirety of the book as I kept reading. I read through it and my thoughts on R:FAtZ, This summary, and EY's ideas in general are as follows.

R:FAtZ is less a book and more a blog made readable in book form - the book is an adaptation of EY's Sequences which took the form of ~2 years of blog posts detailing his philosophy and practice of what he calls Rationality. LessWrong, EY's flagship community, would often tell people that they needed to understand these ideas to properly engage with the discussion. However, reading the sequences was a bit of a mess, as they were a tangled web of blog posts linking to other blog posts and the jury was out on how to actually read them in the most effective way. Yudkowsky compiled them into R:FAtZ, and Quaerendo shortened into this abridged version.

I am of the opinion that this should be the standard resource for starting out engaging with these ideas, because this summary has a lot of ideas crammed into a small space and allows the reader to easily pick out the bits that are most interesting. An unfortunate byproduct of EY's blog posts is that they're exceedingly self-referential. This makes them feel rewarding to read in their entirety (not unlike, say, Homestuck), but difficult to parse for beginning readers. I find this especially unfortunate because most of EY's good, actionable ideas come at the very end of this book (on applying rationality to achieve what EY calls Winning) but essentially require you to read through everything before it to understand what he's talking about. A new reader might not really care much about laying out all of Religion's flaws (not because they disagree, but because it's not something they need convincing over), but want to know how they could apply knowledge of cognitive bias to allow them to make clearer decisions, but EY would define a term in a chapter about atheism and then refer to that term for the entire rest of his work, so you're more or less forced to read every word if you want to be sure you won't lose your way. A lot of EY's writing, I find, panders to the pedantic reader - which is good if your audience will grill you for small inconsistencies but not so good if they just want you to get to the point.

What this summary does is condense all of the ideas into a small space, and by the end of it allows you to skip around the sequences to dive deeper into the ideas you actually care about. For that, I think this is a great tool and I commend Quaerendo for making it.

A good percentage of this book ended up in my Anki flashcard deck (I made something like 97 flashcards while reading it), which I think should point towards how densely packed it is with information - it reads like a combination between a weird textbook and someone's notes on said textbook, which I think is a funny departure from what I've read of R:FAtZ which reads like a combination between a textbook and a Sam Harris lecture.

I'll speak more to EY's actual writing once I complete R:FAtZ proper, but for now I'll just reproduce some of my favorite ideas from the summary:

- "Taboo Your Words"

Oftentimes, people get strung up on specific words that prevent them from realizing what they are actually discussing. In this case, it's often useful to ban specific words (as in the game "Taboo") from the conversation and try to have the same discussion without them. One example is "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" If you ban the word "sound" from the discussion, it's hard to argue against either side's actual argument i.e. "there is no sensory perception from anybody" or "the tree creates vibrations in the air".

Very often it turns out that nobody actually disagrees with anybody, but people are just freaking out over key phrases like "sound". If I may bring up a hot-button example, "Racism" seems like a good analogy, since many a internet flamewar has been waged over whether this specific word implies systemic oppression or just being really nasty to other people.

- "The Map is Not the Territory"

The world is out there, and your perception of the world is in your mind. If things surprise you, it's not that they're actually surprising, but that your mental map of the world was drawn incorrectly somewhere. Blank parts of the map don't mean the territory is blank there, just that you don't know anything about that place. This whole book is great and I've used this analogy to explain things to people many times.

- "Inferential Distances"

Many times smart people (namely scientists) struggle to explain things to the layperson because they assume they know certain things when explaining to them, which they do not. This is sort of built in to your mind since in the ancestral environment it was extremely rare to ever be more than one step away from your peers knowledge-wise, but sometimes you have to get a better handle on what people actually know before explaining things to them.

- "Solomonoff Induction"

People often mess with Occam's Razor by saying things like "God did it" is the simplest explanation, but if you try to think of it like programming a computer program to perform that task then "God did it" is an insanely complicated program involving a higher power suspending physics for a specific little thing. "Of course, it is easier to write a computer program that simulates Maxwell’s Equations than one simulating Thor."

- Awareness of your mental algorithms

I'm not sure how to label this one but the idea that you can get caught up on labels more than you can on actual information is a really clearly explained and important lesson in this book. Basically, you might have all the information on how something works, but because how how your brain is wired you might feel like there's a question left over. I don't think a short review does it justice: see these.

Scott Alexander
Eliezer Yudkowsky

- Rationality is about winning

"First, foremost, fundamentally, above all else: Rational agents should WIN... at any rate, WIN. Don't lose reasonably, WIN."

- "Reversed Stupidity is not Intelligence"

People often think that being wrong is a property of stupid people, and so if a stupid person believes something it must be wrong. This is actually inaccurate; the real property of stupid people is that their beliefs offer absolutely no evidence at all. UFO cults might believe aliens exist, and they might be crazy, but the existence of UFO cults doesn't actually give you any evidence for or against the existence of aliens. Just because you disagree with a stupid person, does not mean you are automatically smart.

- Take joy in the merely real

If dragons existed in the real world, nobody would give a damn about dragons. "People would treat them like zebras - most people wouldn't bother to pay attention, while some scientists would get oddly excited about them". Things get really interesting when you start paying attention to the world and thinking about what would be really sick if they didn't exist but were instead fictional superpowers (i.e. language, ability to run a mile in four minutes)

There's a bunch of other great stuff in here (I made 97 flashcards like the above), but those are the ones that stuck out as my favorites.

Overall a fun and interesting set of notes for a book which I think draws on too long very often.
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Reading Progress

January 6, 2018 – Started Reading
January 6, 2018 – Shelved
February 12, 2018 – Finished Reading

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