Darwin, Some Rationalists and the Joker

After my little trip into the Laurentian mountains, it was Ottawa for me yesterday. There I met up with reader Alex DeMarsh and a few friends he’d pulled together from a local Less Wrong meetup, at the pleasant Fox and Feather pub. Reading left to right, we have Corey, Alex, Miranda and Ben. Alex and Ben are ribbonfarm/Tempo readers, while Miranda and Corey had never heard of me.  I like that kind of ratio of (digitally) familiar and unfamiliar people. The meeting was very interesting, since it helped me further clarify how the idea of narrative rationality that I have developed in Tempo relates to traditional notions of rationality.

For those of you aren’t familiar with Less Wrong, it is a community of rationalists associated with the Singularity Institute. I admit I was rather wary and curious at the same time. The Less Wrong world seems to overlap significantly with my readership. I have no idea why. Quite often, a new reader will mention Less Wrong and ask whether I read the site. The answer is, I don’t. I have looked a bit, but have never been able to get into it, even though they discuss a lot of the themes I discuss on ribbonfarm and particularly in Tempo. I suspect I am in a sort of evil-twin relationship with the Less Wrong philosophy of cognition and decision-making. When I said this at the meetup, one of the attendees remarked, “…and you’re the evil twin.”

I have a pleasant ongoing email conversation with some of the folks behind Less Wrong (Michael Vassar and Jasen Murray), but though I like lots of bits and pieces of the thinking that seems to emerge from the community, I sense that my intellectual DNA is fundamentally different in some deep way that I haven’t yet figured out.

To my pleasant surprise though, the meeting was a great deal of fun. I guess I was sort of expecting an inquisition by a panel of Spocks given the views I espouse, but it was mainly a freewheeling open-ended discussion that went down plenty of interesting rabbit holes. Beer, nachos and bad geek jokes flowed freely.

Building on the evil twin theme, a big meme for the evening was Batman rationality vs. Joker rationality. The Batman vs. Joker (Heath Ledger version) sheds a surprising amount of light on questions such as whether you should want to live for ever and whether rational people necessarily want good things for everybody.

I wish now I’d recorded the conversation. Suffice it to say that we explored some very fertile territory, and a good time was had by all.

I am now less wary of the lesswrongers than I used to be. They bring a healthy sense of doubt, irony, aesthetics and skepticism to their passion for rationality. I expect I’ll continue making fun of them on occasion though. I can’t help myself. A dedicated group of world-saving, optimal-living optimists with a deep faith in the power of rationality suggests far too many irresistible jokes to someone with a bloody-minded sense of humor like me.  I expect they’ll actually succeed in their effort to save the world, and I’ll go to atheist hell where Richard Dawkins’ ghost will torture me.

Following the pub meetup (which included a game of darts where I came in dead last), we moved to a party somewhere else in Ottawa and returned rather late to Alex’s house, where I shared the futon for the night with his cat, Darwin, who likes to sit inside dresser drawers. I took this amazingly evil picture of Darwin that I am itching to post in an intelligent design forum. Dawkins bless camera flashes and cat corneas.


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  1. If anyone is on the fence, Venkat is a very nice house guest and I will vouch that he is not (obviously) a murderous psycho!
    Thanks for the interesting chat, it was a lot of fun.

  2. They are a lovely bunch and I greatly enjoy hanging out with them. Us. Reminders not to be quite so stupid as humans naturally are are, IMO, always apposite :-)

  3. Hehe, Ribbonfarm and LessWrong are two of my most-read blogs. I think that LW (the website) does promote a kind of hive-mind atmosphere, where a certain type of post and comment tends to get voted up. LW the community might be more diverse.

    BTW, I prefer Ribbonfarm.

  4. Yeah, this explains why I had that sense of you being my evil twin — I’m part of the Less Wrong community and I’m friends with Jasen and Michael Vassar.

    (It’s a more diffuse crowd than most outsiders imagine — there are people more to the center of the LessWrong universe and people more on the periphery, and we disagree on things. For example, as a personal matter I don’t care much about evangelizing “rationality” and I’m a skeptic about strong AI; we’re a cultural sensibility more than an ideological platform.)