Lucy Keer at the blog drossbucket wrote a post called “20 Fundamentals,” inspired by John Nerst’s post “30 Fundamentals” at his own blog called Everything Studies. The idea of each is that the author would list some of the background assumptions, attitudes, or approaches on which their thinking was based. I read “20 Fundamentals” with interest; Keer seems to be part of a cluster of rationalist and rationalist-adjacent blogs which I sometimes find quite compelling. My experience reading “30 Fundamentals” was different; I more often find rationalist and rationalist-adjacent writing infuriating than compelling, and John Nerst’s fundamentals were very much a mix of the two.
What’s interesting about the fact that I found this post of his so frustrating in places is that my response mirrored the experience which caused him to write it in the first place:
It’s exasperating to read something were the author’s preoccupations and thought patterns are so unlike your own that you want to launch into a long counterargument every other sentence. The kind of background assumptions that float by unnoticed when you agree with them work very differently when you don’t. What happens when you read a text by someone with a very different underlying worldview is that things sound not so much simply false but some combination of nonsensical and outrageous. “Bullshit” captures the feeling rather than “false”.
That is a pretty good summary of how I frequently feel when reading the rationalists and rationalist-adjacent, well-articulated by the sort of person whose writing I sometimes feel that way about. Their writing bewilders me: there are things that are so obvious—so obvious!—which they fail to see, and the things they take to be self-evident aren’t at all, and moreover they often seem to draw not just the wrong conclusion, but the wrong kind of conclusion, from their chosen examples and test cases.
Nerst, a large part of whose project is to disagree better, goes on to write the following:
It was only later and with more experience that I could piece together how their writings made sense against a whole other background of beliefs and interests than my own. This background was never explicitly described to me. It had to be inferred, and I came away with the conviction that we should be far more explicit about the assumed background against which we intend to communicate.
It is in that spirit that he wrote 30 fundamentals which to a greater or lesser extent define that assumed background. He also writes, “I’d like to encourage other bloggers and writers to do this too. It’s a great tool, not just for others but for yourself too. Have one you can link to so people can sniff you out and get a feel.” I think that there is merit in this exercise, though I wouldn’t be as normative about it as he seems to be, so I’m going to try it.
I like what Keer says:
What I ended up producing was a bit of a odd mixed bag of disparate stuff. Some are something like factual beliefs, some of them are more like underlying emotional attitudes and dispositions to act in various ways. // I’m not trying to ‘hit bedrock’ in any sense, I realise that’s not a sensible goal. I’m just trying to fish out a few things that are fundamental enough to cause obvious differences in background with other people. […] I’ve mainly gone for assumptions where I tend to differ with the people I to hang around with online and in person, which skews heavily toward the physics/maths/programming crowd. This means there’s a pretty strong ‘narcissism of small differences’ effect going on here […].
I’m going to attempt much the same, though the people I tend to argue with online differ markedly from those I tend to spend time with in real life, and for that matter they tend to differ markedly from each other. I might therefore avoid a narcissism of small differences and veer toward another, far less useful vice: an isolating eclecticism, bogged by eccentricity. I will also lean toward revelations that are new to me.