What Would a Rational Gryffindor Read?

In the Harry Potter world, Ravenclaws are known for being the smart ones. That’s their thing. In fact, that was really all they were known for. In the books, each house could be boiled down to one or two words: Gryffindors are brave, Ravenclaws are smart, Slytherins are evil and/or racist, and Hufflepuffs are pathetic loyal. (Giving rise to this hilarious Second City mockery.)

But while reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I realized that there’s actually quite a lot of potential for interesting reading in each house. Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.

And so, after much thought, I found myself knee-deep in my books recreating what a rationalist from each house would have on his or her shelf. I tried to match the mood as well as the content. Here they are in the appropriate proportions for a Facebook cover image so that you can display your pride both in rationality and in your chosen house (click to see each image larger, with a book list on the left):

Rationality Ravenclaw Library

Rationality Gryffindor Library

Rationality Slytherin Library

Rationality Hufflepuff Library

What do you think? I’m always open to book recommendations and suggestions for good fits. Which bookshelf fits you best? What would you add?

Spinoza, Godel, and Theories of Everything

On the latest episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and I have an entertaining discussion with Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher, author, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. There’s a pleasing symmetry to her published oeuvre. Her nonfiction books, about people like philospher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician Kurt Godel, have the aesthetic sensibilities of novels, while her novels (most recently, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction”) have the kind of weighty philosophical discussions one typically finds in non-fiction.

It’s a wide-ranging and fun conversation. My main complaint is just over her treatment of Spinoza. Basically, people say he “believed God was nature.” That always made me roll my eyes, because it’s not making a claim about the world, it’s merely redefining the word “God” to mean “nature,” for no good reason. I voice this complaint to Rebecca during the show and she defends Spinoza; you can see what you think of her response, but I felt it to be weak; it sounded like she was just pointing out some dubious similarities between nature and the typical conception of God.

Nevertheless! It’s certainly worth a listen:


Ender Wiggin, Harry Potter, and Kurt Godel

I love finding real-life connections to my favorite fictional characters. One of the consistent criticisms I hear about Ender’s Game is that people have trouble buying into the notion that children as young as six can be so intelligent, rational, and independent. That’s also a knock against Harry in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which was clearly influenced by Ender’s Game) – he just doesn’t fit with how we expect eleven-year olds to behave. But if we accept the premise of a hyper-intelligent child, would the other traits follow?

I was reading Rebecca Goldstein’s book Incompleteness on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, and young Kurt might fit the bill. Gödel was an extremely intelligent child, far more intelligent than his parents. Goldstein thinks he made this realization as early as five, and it had a big impact on his character:

It would be comforting, in the presence of such a shattering conclusion… to derive the following additional conclusion: There are always logical explanations and I am exactly the sort of person who can discover such explanations. The grownups around me may be a sorry lot, but luckily I don’t need to depend on them. I can figure out everything for myself. The world is thoroughly logical and so is my mind – a perfect fit.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Ender’s Game, but that sounded pretty familiar – the grown ups weren’t able (his parents) or willing (the teachers) to protect him, so he had to find ways to solve problems himself.

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality much more recently, and he might be a closer fit. In this version, Harry is extremely intelligent and raised by parents who love him, but are – frankly – unable to keep up. This particular passage caught my eye:

Harry nodded. “I still don’t know whether the Headmaster was joking or… the thing is, he was right in a way. I had loving parents, but I never felt like I could trust their decisions, they weren’t sane enough. I always knew that if I didn’t think things through myself, I might get hurt… Even if it’s sad, I think that’s part of the environment that creates what Dumbledore calls a hero – people who don’t have anyone else to shove final responsibility onto, and that’s why they form the mental habit of tracking everything themselves.”

Situations like Kurt Gödel’s are rare, but that’s the point of fiction. Given his example, perhaps it’s not SO big of a stretch that children who surpass their parents at such a young age would turn into an Ender Wiggin or “rational” Harry Potter.

At the very least, perhaps this connection will help people suspend their disbelief a little bit, and go read either of these fantastic works of fiction.

RS#36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

Episode #36 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out, and this one’s a lively debate between me and Massimo about the value of humanities departments in universities. While I don’t deny the huge amount of enjoyment we get from arts and literature, I express skepticism about many of the typical justifications for requiring humanities courses. Those justifications strike me as either (1) overly vague and subjective (“the humanities make you a complete person”) or (2) making contrived claims about the practical benefits of studying the arts (“the humanities build critical thinking skills”) to which I usually want to reply, “If that’s your goal, there are much more direct ways to pursue it than studying literature.”

Rationally Speaking #36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

The Game Theory of Story Endings

Do happy endings really make you as happy if you see them coming a mile away? When we watch a trashy action flick or a fluffy romantic comedy, aren’t the conflicts less interesting because we know it’ll all end happily ever after? Someone has to bite the bullet and write a sad ending to give plausibility to the threat of unhappiness. It’s disincentivized because sad endings are more challenging and risk upsetting the audience, but someone has to do it.

Steven E. Landsburg muses about this in The Armchair Economist:

I am intrigued by the market for movie endings. Movie-goers want two things in an ending: They want it to be happy and they want it to be unpredictable. There is some optimal frequency of sad endings that maintains the right level of suspense. Yet the market might fail to provide enough sad endings.

An individual director who films a sad ending risks short-term losses, as word gets around that the movie is “unsatisfying.” It is true that there are long-term gains, as viewers are kept off their guard for future movies. Unfortunately, most of those gains may be captured by other directors, because movie-goers remember only that the murderer does sometimes catch up with the heroine in the basement, and do not remember that it happens only in movies with particular directors. Under these circumstances, no individual director may be willing to incur costs for his rivals’ benefit.

A solution is for directors to display their names prominently, so that viewers know when a movie was made by someone unpredictable. Viewers, however, may find it in their interests to retaliate by covering their eyes when the director’s name is shown.

If you can be associated more strongly with unpredictability, you reap more benefits. You’re also more strongly associated with the unhappy ending, which might turn audiences away.

One way to ease the blow of an unexpected sad ending is to make deaths triumphant, defiant, or heroic. Think of how Spock died in The Wrath of Khan (No, I’m not going to give a spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie). Sure, people die in Star Trek all the time – when Kirk, Spock, and fresh-faced, red-shirted Ensign Jimmy beam down to explore a planet for life, we all know one of them isn’t going to make it back. But to kill a main character is more significant. And it was done in a touching way. They got the unpredictability without upsetting their audience.

I genuinely respect Joss Whedon for his willingness to throw curve balls like this in his story lines. He’s developed a reputation for having sympathetic characters die, leave, or change sides – often without warning. Rather than watching Buffy, Firefly and Serenity thinking “So, how is it all going to work out this time?” we’re forced to think “Is it going to work out this time?”

TV Tropes has a name for all this – Anyone Can Die:

This is where no one is exempt from being killed, including the main characters (maybe even the hero). The Sacrificial Lamb is often used to establish the writer’s Anyone Can Die cred early on. However, if the Lamb’s death is a one-off with no follow-up, it’s just Killed Off for Real. To really be Anyone Can Die, the work must include multiple deaths, happening at different points in the story. Bonus points if the death is unnecessary and devoid of Heroic Sacrifice.

In game theory situations, reputation plays a large role. TV Tropes mentions building a ‘Anyone Can Die’ cred, which can be achieved through repeated interactions. In a TV series or multiple films by the same director, you get a feel for whether the good guys always prevail. But even within a single story, early and repeated signaling can make the remainder of the plot more intense. When a major character is killed off without it being a Heroic Sacrifice, that’s a powerful signal that anything can happen. The musical Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart for mastering this dynamic.

But there’s another route. Historical dramas can increase society’s perception of “sadness plausibility” without anyone taking a hit for being a downer. Nobody’s going to feel unsatisfied that Titanic, The Great Escape, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have sad endings. (Or if they do, they can take it up with reality for writing a depressing script. It’s not easy to keep those separate in our brains; we just get the overall sense that sometimes stories have sad endings. And that perception helps us enjoy all the other movies we watch.

“Is there an answer?” Searching for the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

(posted at 3 Quarks Daily)

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gets credit for pointing out that many classic philosophical conundrums are unsolvable not because they are so profound, but because they are incoherent. Instead of trying to solve such questions, he argued, we should try to dissolvethem, by demonstrating how they misuse words and investigating the confusion that motivated the question in the first place.

But with all due respect to Wittgenstein, my favorite example of the “dissolving questions” strategy comes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which contains a cheeky and unforgettable dissolution of which I’m sure Wittgenstein himself would have been proud:  A race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings builds a supercomputer named Deep Thought, so that they can ask it the question that has preoccupied philosophers for millions of years: “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

After seven and a half million years of computation, Deep Thought finally announces the answer: Forty-two. In response to the programmers’ howls of disappointment and confusion, Deep Thought rather patiently points out that the reason his answer doesn’t make any sense is because their original question didn’t make any sense either. As I’ve written before, questions like this one, or the very similar “What is the meaning of life?” question, seem to be committing a basic category error: life isn’t the kind of thing to which the word “meaning” or “answer” applies.

But in this article I want to take my analysis a little further than that.

Read the rest, at 3 Quarks Daily.

Surrealism and the Uncanny Valley

Although I still have a preference for classic computer games that use sprites for graphics, there’s something to be said for a more realistic look. People feel more connected to inanimate objects if they have more human traits. That is, until the objects get TOO close to human. Get too close and they fall into the “uncanny valley” where people actually feel revulsion. It’s a problem for new and “improved” graphics in movies:

Most recently, moviegoers complained about the near-realistic depiction of humans in Disney’s 3-D flick “Mars Needs Moms.”

A theory called the “uncanny valley” says we tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute. Our affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it looks too human, we suddenly become repulsed.

Instead of seeing what’s similar, we notice the flaws _ and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make us uncomfortable.

If the representation is close enough to be judged as “human with strange differences” instead of “replica with cute human similarities” we get uncomfortable. This applies to prosthetic limbs, and robotics as well as animation.

Talking with Julia about it, she pointed out that the uncanny valley phenomenon applies to other topics, including fiction and surrealism. The ‘eerie’ feeling which can arise from surrealism seems most powerful when the world is close to reality – but with a few unsettling differences.

One of my favorite examples comes from Pirates of the Caribbean 3, when the audience finds Jack Sparrow (Sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow) in Davy Jones’ Locker:

Sure, it starts out a bit strange but definitely within the realm of normality. Then they throw a curveball: there are multiple Jack Sparrows. While we’re busy wrapping our heads around that, reality puts up a good fight: they’re doing doing typical sailor things on a ship. Wait, scratch that, one of them just laid an egg.

The film keeps enough similarities with the rest of the Pirates reality to make the comparison “Normal ship with strange differences” instead of “crazy ship with some similarities to the real world”.

Thinking Meat?

If other intelligent life DID find us on this small blue-green planet, what would they think? After I posted the Morning Links about our material and deterministic minds, a friend sent me a link to this charming short story: “Sentient Meat“.

So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.

That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.

I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in this sector and they’re made out of meat.

My favorite part comes a bit later:

So… what does the thinking?

You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.

Thinking meat??? You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat???

Yes, thinking meat ! Conscious meat ! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal ! Are you getting the picture?

Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.

Of course, in a sense we ARE machines, just biological machines. As T-Rex described it in Dinosaur Comics, each of us is a “machine that turns FOOD into IDEAS!”

(slightly shrunk, click here for the full-size, less-fuzzy comic)

Teaching the scientific method, with magic

(Written for 3 Quarks Daily)

If you wanted to teach people about science, you probably wouldn’t set out to write a fantasy novel. But the exceptional Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – an ongoing series of online “fan fiction” by Eliezer Yudkowsky – borrows J.K. Rowling’s world and uses it as a vessel for a sophisticated guide to scientific thinking, while simultaneously crafting a far cleverer and more imaginative story than the original.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality isn’t primarily interested in teaching readers the “what” of science, even though it is liberally sprinkled with interesting facts about genetics, game theory, quantum mechanics, and psychology, among other things. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s about the “how” of science, conceived of not in the narrow sense of research in a laboratory, but in the broader sense of the process of figuring out how anything in the world works.

Like his counterpart in the original series, this Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary British boy who is thrust into the magic world at the age of eleven. But unlike the mistreated waif of the original series, this Harry has grown up with caring, intellectual parents who bought him all the books he wanted and encouraged his analytic instincts. So when he finds himself plunged into a new, magical world, he immediately starts using that training to find the answers to a host of new questions that confront him: Who can I trust? Why are some people able to do magic and others not? Is there an afterlife? What are ghosts? And how does magic actually work?

Magic may not operate by the logic we’re used to in our world, Harry reasons, but it must operate by some logic. His attempts to methodically figure out what that is are some of the most intellectually enjoyable parts of the series. For example, it appears that you can cause a target to levitate by uttering the magic phrase “Wingardium Leviosa.” But what’s doing the actual work: the sounds made by the spellcaster’s mouth, or the concept in the spellcaster’s head?

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is an elegant time travel story by one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers, Ted Chiang. I think it’s really hard to write an internally consistent time travel story (i.e., one in which you can’t change your future) which also (1) is surprising, and (2) doesn’t feel contrived. The problem with most such stories is that you know ahead of time what the destination has to be, so all of the events which inexorably push things towards that destination often feel contrived, like you can see that the author made them happen for the purposes of the narrative. Which is a deathblow to fiction. By contrast, the events in Chiang’s stories don’t feel forced, even as they preserve temporal consistency.

I also appreciate that it lacks the moralizing tone that a lot of time travel stories have. In so many stories, there’s this distasteful undercurrent of, “You were arrogant enough to think you could escape your fate? Well, joke’s on you. You’re just as screwed as you were before (or worse).” Chiang’s stories don’t punish the characters for experimenting with time.

And the nested story structure is lovely — a nice nod to Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights.


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