Neoreaction, Rationalism, and Eliezer Yudkowsky
Last War in Albion this afternoon.
So, there’s been a line of complaint about Neoreaction a Basilisk(my new book, currently funding on Kickstarter) that accuses it of being an attempt to slander “rationalism,” and specifically Eliezer Yudkowsky, by linking them to neoreaction. And of being part of a communist propaganda campaign to this end. It’s not.
This weird theory mostly been pushed by a guy who blogs under the name nydwracu who’s active in both circles, which highlights the irony of the complaint(though he’s been pushing it on social media, not that blog) I’ve sent him a preview copy, so he can at least trash talk it honestly now. Of course, he’s a white nationalist, and we know how good they are at intellectual honesty.
All the same, it’s a serious enough concern that I want to address it, if only because it’s a concern Yudkowsky himself raised while news of the book was first flitting about the aether, and while there are some significant ways in which I do not respect Eliezer Yudkowsky, he seems a nice bloke, and I genuinely don’t want to cause him any distress. So allow me to say with absolute explicitness: Eliezer Yudkowsky is not a neoreactionary. He repudiates the philosophy in explicit terms. He has shown no sympathy for and ative hostility to its most noxious beliefs. If I have ever suggested otherwise, I apologize profusely for the infelicity of writing, and if it is possible to edit the text in question I will do so.
That said, this has also been read as an attempt to smear “rationalism,” and that’s a subtler thing worth unpicking. First of all, I want to be clear that the book’s topic is complex, and is not an equation of all of the elements within it. To nick an analogy someone made when defending the book on Tumblr, it’s a book that has Eliezer Yudkowksy and neoreaction in it; it’s also a book that has Frantz Fanon and China Miéville in it. It no more implies that Yudkowsky is a neoreactionary than it implies that Moldbug is a socialist or Nick Land is black. This is a pretty self-evident principle, and I’m not going to harp on it, but come on guys, be serious.
Still, the book’s title binds together two things – Neoreaction and the word “Basilisk,” which comes from Roko’s Basilisk, a bit of Internet infamy involving Yudkowsky and his website LessWrong. Obviously I’m insinuating something. It’s fair to ask what it is. To some extent the answer has to be “read the damn book,” of course; I’m trying to make a living here. But we can talk about this without undue spoilers, so let’s do so. To frame the question in a way that makes complete sense given my past work, what the fuck do I have against Eliezer Yudkowsky?
After all, he is in many regards the odd man out in Neoreaction a Basilisk. That I would take a pop at Mencius Moldbug, a neo-fascist nutjob two doors down from Vox Day, is easy enough to understand. That I’d be intrigued by Nick Land, a fellow ex-humanities academic who curiously straddles the line between leftist approaches I am sympathetic to and right-wing ones that appall me, is perfectly sensible. But computer science is hella outside my lane, and Yudkowsky’s politics are no more objectionable than Gareth Roberts’, so what’s up here?
The answer’s, simply put, that Yudkowsky’s a crackpot, and I kinda like crackpots. I mean, big shock – historically my major fandoms are a madman with a box, a guy who worships a puppet, and the author of a book called Europe a Prophecy. Eccentricity is kind of my beat; just look at the strapline at the top of the page. (I really hope it’s “Keep refreshing me, it drives the ad prices up.”) Yudkowsky is an AI scholar with literally no significant accomplishments in the field of artificial intelligence whose nonprofit institute was the subject of an evaluation from a major charity watchdog that declared that donating to them would likely cause active harm to their stated mission. He’s the author of literary masterpieces such as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and A Girl Corrupted by the Internet is the Summoned Hero?! He calls people who don’t undergo cryonics “deathists.” He’s basically the leader of a totally amazeballs cult that calls themselves “rationalists,” and of couse I’m interested in his work.
Roko’s Basilisk, meanwhile… well, I linked it above. It’s a great story. No, it didn’t actually freak out a huge number of people, and no, Yudkowsky doesn’t actually believe in it, but as Nick Land said, his post on the thread shutting down the discussion is “one of the most gloriously gone texts of modern times,” and that’s coming from the man who wrote “A Dirty Joke.” It’s not a major tenet of rationalism, but it’s sure as hell one of the best pages on RationalWiki (no relation to Yudkowsky, and in fact largely hostile to him), and undoubtedly one of the most interesting things about the wonderful nutjob that is Eliezer Yudkowsky.
As for “rationalism” and “neoreaction,” at least inasmuch as “rationalist” refers meaningfully to “people who have written about Eliezer Yudkowsky” (and that’s a highly idiosyncratic use of the word “rational”) it refers to a group who intersect with neoreaction somewhat heavily. There’s nydwracu, of course. Michael Anissimov, author of A Critique of Democracy: A Guide for Neoreactionaries, whose blog title More Right has obvious debt to LessWrong. Scott Alexander, who wrote one of the better sympathetic summaries of neoreaction, “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous Planet-Sized Nutshell” and one of the most-linked refutations of it, the Anti-Reactionary FAQ (which is ridiculously bogged down in tiny details of arguments instead of any big picture critiques, an unfortunate contrast to the former essay), is heavily influenced by Yudkowsky, and in turn shows up in Nick Land’s novella Phyl-Undhu (which also has a riff on Roko’s Basilisk) as Alex Scott, who gives voice to a theory about the Great Filter offered by Alexander. The Great Filter being coined by Robin Hanson, blogger at Overcoming Bias, where Yudkowsky got his start, and where Mencius Moldbug was a commenter. Moldbug and Yudkowsky also share what I’ve been cheekily calling a PayPal mafia sugar daddy in the form of right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel. And Moldbug has written about Yudkowsky, rejecting him with the ardor only an ex-believer can muster. And by the accounts of numerous people who were active in the community, when LessWrong was more of a going thing there was a significant chunk of the community that was vocally neoreactionary, and a larger chunk that was at least happily willing to listen to neoreactionary ideas and entertain them as things worth taking seriously, and that’s at the very least disproportionate compared to the rest of the world. David Gerard (primary author of the RationalWiki article on Roko’s Basilisk) and I talk a lot about this in this week’s Eruditorum Presscast, so if you really want to have a chunk of the details explained to you, go for it.
My point is that it’s self-evident why these are topics you can move between. The point of Neoreaction a Basilisk is not to prove that, nor is it to provide comprehensive refutations of either Yudkowskian rationalism or neoreaction, both of which already exist in numerous and various forms. It presents the case for why its basic topic is coherent, yes, but as you might expect, the book is not primarily an exploration of the basic sense of its existence, and generally assumes the topic to be self-evident. And yes, it summarizes many of the arguments against Yudkowsky, Moldbug, and Land as well as offering some new ones. If you’re interested in why these three people are wrong about stuff, it will serve as a great introduction. As David Gerard puts it, I’ve read them so you don’t have to. But even these summary-refutations are just part of a grander and more oblique design. Mua, ha, and indeed ha.
For what it’s worth, though, the reason I needed Eliezer Yudkowsky in the book was that I needed someone who wasn’t evil. Mencius Moldbug’s philosophy is indefensible, and Nick Land is ostentatiously playing a super-villain, which is delightfully evil, but nevertheless evil. And Yudkowsky is wrong, and sometimes wrong in ways that genuinely deserve a bit of condemnation, but at least he’s a fun crackpot, and that counts for an awful lot in my world. And while Neoreaction a Basilisk does not offer anything that might be mistaken for hope, it has a sense of good guys and bad guys, and Yudkowsky’s one of the good guys.
Like that Ned Stark fellow.
Neoreaction a Basilisk is available on Kickstarter, and shipping this summer.
Anthony D Herrera
May 6, 2016 @ 11:47 am
Do you ever worry that you yourself are a crackpot? Or do you worry that you will never truly be a crackpot?
May 6, 2016 @ 1:44 pm
I don’t think Phil was more than half joking when he subtitled the Super Nintendo Project. His crackpot credentials are solid and undeniable.
May 6, 2016 @ 2:18 pm
He must be a crackpot — he’s got me writing over here.
May 6, 2016 @ 3:02 pm
That’s more Phil as cult leader.
May 6, 2016 @ 4:18 pm
Moldbug is a neo-monarchist nutbag, not a neo-fascist nutbag.
May 6, 2016 @ 6:58 pm
In practice it doesn’t make much difference if you call the absolute leader you want to bring back the good old days a King, a Duce, or a CEO. Narcissism of small differences, People’s Front of Judea, and all that rot.
May 6, 2016 @ 11:09 pm
Let’s just call a spade a trowel.
May 7, 2016 @ 12:05 am
Given that Moldbug himself seems to think there is a very big difference, I’d say calling him a neo-fascist is dishonest or ignorant.
May 7, 2016 @ 2:47 am
It’s like no one wants to be called a fascist these days. Just ‘Kaiser’ or ‘Ceasar’ or something.
May 7, 2016 @ 3:34 am
Yeah, “don’t call this fascist a fascist because HE thinks he’s not a fascist” is … not a position i think anyone needs to have much sympathy for.
May 6, 2016 @ 7:07 pm
To misquote The Commitments – he’s a crackpot, all right. But he’s OUR crackpot.
May 6, 2016 @ 9:30 pm
“Of course, he’s a white nationalist,”
I hardly even care about politics anymore beyond “holy shit, Puritans are insane” (pop quiz: how many degrees are there between Yale and Hitler? between the New York Times and Stalin? between Harvard and the Khmer Rouge?) — and the alt-right people keep getting mad at me for associating with the maybe 1/3 of the rationalists who don’t have me blocked, so — but I’m one of the maybe five people on the planet who bothered to read most of Unqualified Reservations and people are frequently wrong on the internet.
(I’ll probably email you a list of all my disagreements with your summary of Moldbug once I’ve finished reading the book, but maybe that was part of the point. And, to be clear, I don’t think it would matter much with regard to the effect of the book on the false Yudkowsky-NRx narrative if it had nothing in it but pictures of Teletubbies.)
May 6, 2016 @ 11:05 pm
Yes, I’m going to be fascinated to read any defense of Moldbug from the perspective of someone with an aversion to writing about things based on a mere constellation of associations.
May 7, 2016 @ 2:53 am
What’s this pop quiz? What counts as a “degree” of separation? Wittgenstein went to the same school as the Nazi leader. That seems closer than the NYT. Does that count?
May 6, 2016 @ 9:37 pm
Incidentally, what do you think the three most commonly assigned books in college syllabi are? (The Bible and the Constitution aren’t on the list — the Open Syllabus Project’s scraping algorithm has difficulty with works without listed authors.)
As the clickbaiters say, #3 might surprise you…
May 6, 2016 @ 11:07 pm
I would assume it’s some Intro Chemistry textbook favored by the University of Phoenix or something, but I’m sure you have some particular list in mind that you’re quizzing me on, so why don’t you just post the link.
May 6, 2016 @ 11:34 pm
The list is biased toward fields that tend to assign primary texts, and against fields that tend to assign textbooks (toward the humanities and against everything else), but #4 is a biology textbook.
May 6, 2016 @ 11:54 pm
May 7, 2016 @ 3:40 am
Indeed. Hardly a surprise – at 17,000 words, it’s a nice “done in one day” work that adds that slight note of transgressiveness to a syllabus.
It’s also telling, in other words, how many writers get second and even third works in before you get to Capital, i.e. Marx that Marxists care about.
May 7, 2016 @ 6:58 pm
Capital is #44.
The authors who get second works in are Foucault (Power and History of Sexuality), Homer (the Odyssey and the Iliad), Mill (On Liberty and Utilitarianism), Sophocles (Oedipus and Antigone), and Turabian, who writes writing guides. Plato gets three — Republic, Apology, and Dialogues — but Dialogues includes Apology, so Apology could be considered as a selection from Dialogues. Aristotle gets four: Ethics, Politics, Poetics, and Nicomachean Ethics. If Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics are the same text, the Communist Manifesto falls to #4 and Capital rises to #43. #42 if Apology is counted as part of Dialogues.
Marx’s second work comes before Shakespeare’s. Capital comes in above Democracy in America, Huckleberry Finn (or anything else by Twain), the Meditations, Locke’s Second Treatise — and even the Declaration of Independence.
May 9, 2016 @ 9:41 am
Twain is unlikely college-level reading unless you’re studying him for a writing class or something, though. Same for the Declaration of Independence: you’ll have read those in high school, they’re not terribly likely to be assigned in college (even if you have something to teach from the Declaration, you can probably handle it with a few slides in a lecture rather than actually adding it to your reading list. Plus it’s short enough that it’s probably in many relevant textbooks).
And, uh, de Tocqueville is at #32, distinctly above Capital at #44. He also places at #59, for some reason. Adding the two together would place Democracy In America at #5, but I’m not sure they’re actually the same work: the lower-placed version has additional authors and may be a textbook or something.
Shakespeare’s second work may come (slightly) after Marx’s, but his third and fourth and fifth come rather sooner. He’s only farther down the list because he’s got a lot of good entries.
May 7, 2016 @ 2:57 am
How can a list be biased if it’s simply of the most commonly assigned texts in a multiplicity of college courses?
May 7, 2016 @ 4:44 am
Presumably because a lot of professors who use only a single textbook don’t name said textbook on their syllabi, so it doesn’t get scraped? Makes sense to me. I don’t think dude is saying the Open Syllabus Project is /ideologically/ biased (although that’s certainly what he’s implying about the colleges themselves) – he’s saying that the data is weighted in certain ways by the habits of professors wrt syllabi, and i don’t see any reason to think that isn’t a possibility.
May 7, 2016 @ 7:04 pm
It’s biased toward certain fields, certainly — fields where you read original texts rather than textbooks. If you take a class on Shakespeare, you’re going to get assigned Shakespare; if you take a class on Western philosophy, you’re going to get assigned Plato; but if you take a class on astronomy, there are a lot of astronomy textbooks in the world.
That said, #4 is a biology textbook, so.
May 7, 2016 @ 10:31 pm
I’m utterly horrified.
They’re actually still teaching STRUNK & WHITE in US universities? Posturing prescriptivist pseudo-pedantry like that can corrupt impressionable young people’s minds irreparably!
May 8, 2016 @ 5:06 am
I was just going to say, by far the most offensive thing on that list is that Strunk and White are on it, let alone at #1.
May 9, 2016 @ 9:47 am
Dunno about that. I’m not a fan, but… Imagine you’re trying to get a lecture hall full of MBA students to write an actual readable English sentence. Your first week’s essays came back full of… well, they clearly know how to leverage synergies in best-in-class linguistics, but not one of them can say what they mean. If writing’s not your field and you’re just looking for something to help your students turn in a readable essay on whatever you are supposed to be teaching, I can absolutely see someone reaching for Strunk and White.
I can even see it working, at least somewhat. (Say what you will, they’re wrong about a lot of things, but I’d buy tickets to the beatdown they’d put on anyone “leveraging” in front of them.)
May 7, 2016 @ 4:37 am
Well Plato’s Republic beats out Karl and Frederick, so by your implied logic I suppose academia is in thrall to a conspiracy to ban poetry and raise all children by the state.
May 7, 2016 @ 4:47 am
It’s not a ban on poetry, just a reconception of what should actually be considered poetic.
May 7, 2016 @ 4:49 am
It’s a really stupid line of implication to start with, too. I mean, Ethics is #6 and The Prince is #8. Cherry-picking a single popularly-taught book as evidence that colleges are indoctrinating students into communism or some shit is, well, it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d expect of Mr. Moldbug and Mr. nydwracu. Which is to say that it’s dishonest, disingenuous, and fucking stupid.
May 7, 2016 @ 7:07 pm
It’s not “evidence that colleges are indoctrinating students into communism” — it’s evidence that Marx isn’t marginalized in American colleges. And it matches up with what I saw: I didn’t go to a particularly left-wing college, but at least three of my professors were Marxists, including the head of the political science department.
May 6, 2016 @ 10:50 pm
This is a deep and terrifying ocean.
I was saddened to see a tongue-in-cheek bit of SJW-trolling by Gareth Roberts on Facebook. I prefer to remember him as the young man reading out some rant from the Daily Mail in a Davros voice (complete with wizened hand).
May 6, 2016 @ 10:52 pm
… omg, I just followed the Roko’s Basilisk link and hit a Shriekback lyric.
May 8, 2016 @ 9:24 am
This stuff is highly nutritious for me. I read the entry on Roko’s Basilisk on rationalwiki.org and, as well as being hilarious, it led me to loads of other stuff about AI which I simply hadn’t encountered before, despite wanting to write SF about robots and AIs and stuff. It was interesting to make the connection between the rationalwiki stuff about the echo chamber of LessWrong – how people genuinely scared by the Basilisk could help themselves by seeking outside perspective – and this article on how the paucity of women in AI affects its development, not in hazy “diversity is good” terms, but in direct ways:
Not that this will be news to you, but it’s all news to me!
May 8, 2016 @ 7:47 pm
It’s important to note, by the way, that the stuff on LessWrong is pretty much nothing to do with actual practical real-world AI. Actual AI researchers punch walls when MIRI comes up.
May 9, 2016 @ 1:33 am
lol – I shall keep that in mind.