I’m reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
In a chapter on different theories of extinction, she relays some words from Charles Darwin. After reading Lyell’s Principles, Darwin wrote:
I have always thought that the great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind.
This got me thinking: what writers / works have altered the whole tone of my mind? Some thoughts below.
The Narrowing of Free Will
The Illusion of Conscious Will and other similar books fundamentally changed the tone of my mind, in that they convinced that we don’t have free will, at least not likely in the sense that we perceive.
The Power of Markets, The Power of Market Failures
While I’m not a libertarian, and I have many questions about the basic foundations of the philosophy, the blogging of Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Arnold Kling, et al has influenced how I understand the connected workings of government, markets, and citizens. The writings of Ha Joon Chang have been a good counterweight here. All told, I have become a bigger believer in both markets and market failures.
Politics as Biology and Identity
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and Robin Hanson’s “politics is not about policy” blogging have heavily influenced how I understand the political world, which I now view much more through the lenses of biology and sociology rather than policy.
Status as a Driving Force
Robin Hanson’s writing on status has dramatically increased how much I weigh the desire for status in my attempts to understand human behavior.
Wealth and History
Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World made me understand what an anomoly the past two hundred years have been in terms of human wealth. For tens of thousands of years we had nothing, and then all of a sudden we had so much.
The Real Threat of Existential Risks
Nick Bostrom’s Global Catastrophic Risks forced me to consider that humanity may very well be eliminated in the next couple hundred years. I wish we were doing more to mitigate these risks.
The Limits of Meritocracy
I’m really not sure who to attribute this to, but over the past couple years I’ve become keenly aware that meritocracy, at its best, is simply a machine that sorts people by genetic and environmental factors. It is not as just as I once suspected. This belief has radically increased my support for for fairly high levels of taxation.
The Likelihood of Conscious Machines
Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near opened my mind to the idea that, at some point (be it 30 or 300 or 3,000 years), artificial intelligence will likely achieve conscious status.
Data and Pragmatism
Members of NSNO’s management team and board constantly forced me to shelve ideology and theory in favor of data and pragmatism. This evolution took many years, but I now (to a greater extent, at least) approach problems through data and pragmatism rather than grand theories.
If I had to identify a unifying theme in these learnings, it would be this: our knowledge, volition, and durability are minuscule.
One Last Note: On Schooling
In my twenty years or so of schooling, I never took a single class that predominantly focused on any of these issues. Reading East of Eden in 9th grade did somewhat hit on free will (I wrote my term paper on the word “timshel”), and some law school classes touched on markets and regulation. But most of the ideas that have changed the tone of my mind have come from readings I undertook outside of the classroom.
What readings our conversations have changed the tone of your mind? I’d love to hear.