Thursday, 12 December 2013

Claiming Noam Chomsky

Among the world’s public intellectuals, there is perhaps nobody closer to the aspiring rationalist and effective altruist schools of thought than Noam Chomsky. Yet I have rarely heard his name mentioned among the people that comprise these circles. Chomsky is seen as being something entirely different. Recently, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Chomsky and I’ve been struck by how many similarities there are between his worldview and the AREA worldview.

I see 7 main commonalities:

1. Emphasis of substance over style

Chomsky famously embraces being a boring speaker:

"I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way.... I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is.... People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important."

In typical rationalist fashion, Chomsky cares more about the content of an argument than on the way it’s delivered. In his lectures and interviews, he calmly states facts and arguments without “superficial eloquence.” He’s equally passive and attentive when being spoken too. This is an attribute that applies to many people but it is certainly a virtue among AREAs.

2. Indifference toward cultural norms and group identities

Chomsky adamantly holds unpopular views, regardless of how acceptable they are in society at large or among those who share his other views. For instance, his belligerent criticism of the US government doesn’t lead Chomsky to share crazy views held by others who critique the US government, namely epistemological critiques of science or crackpot conspiracy theories.

Rationalists often sign up for cryonics, anticipate a technological singularity within their lifetimes, concern themselves with the suffering of artificial and subhuman minds, reject religion, embrace transhumanism, etc. Chomsky calls himself an anarchist, criticizes many (most?) academic fields of study, has radical and fundamental problems with both US parties, accuses almost all mainstream media of attempting thought control, etc. This is another quality that applies to many groups of people and does not say much on its own.

3. Multidisciplinary expertise

Along with certain rationalists and effective altruists, Chomsky is among the greatest polymaths to ever live. He began his career by revolutionizing the field of linguistics, wrote extremely influential books in communications and cultural theory, is perhaps most well-known for his criticism of political and economic systems, is an expert on several branches of philosophy, and has spoken intelligently on many scientific issues, including artificial intelligence and the possibility of a singularity. He hasn’t merely learned science or politics – he’s taught himself several fields of study.

The only living people I know that surpass Chomsky in this way are in the AREA community – those people are all ~50 years younger than him, having grown up in the Internet age.

4. Deep concern with existential risks and mass human suffering

In several talks, Chomsky has brought up the issue of risks that threaten species survival. Again and again, he emphasizes the seriousness of nuclear war and climate change

Here: "There are two good reasons why the species might not survive very long."

Further, Chomsky’s concern has always been with large-scale systemic issues that possess the potential to dramatically alter the world’s total utility. If not systemic issues, then mass violations of human rights and ethics.

This, of course, is the defining characteristic of being an effective altruism: the want to do as much good as you can possibly do. I think one reason why Chomsky isn’t accepted as an effective altruist is that he has different, although more mainstream, pet causes and interests. While effective altruists tend to see nuclear war as only a moderate priority, Chomsky sees the probability of a deadly singularity as a very low priority. That may exclude him from the community but it doesn’t make him any less of a person using reason and knowledge to fight to help as many people as possible.

5. Activism

Effective altruists are big thinkers but they are also big doers. The whole point of effective altruism is that you actually have that big positive impact on the world that you type about. Many effective altruists have formed organizations, made large donations, and drastically changed their lifestyles in order to accomplish to reduce suffering.

Chomsky is best known for his political activism against corrupt governments and illegitimate structures of power among capitalistic systems. He has praised activists like Edward Said for fulfilling the true role of intellectuals. Clearly, his interest is not in talking politics with other academics, but with actually changing the world.

Following the death of Chomsky’s wife in 2008, The Chomsky Fund was created. It seeks donations for the humanitarian needs of the victims of human rights offenses in Palestine. He has also donated to other political movements such as the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. Like effective altruists, he is interested in the suffering of those in dire situations, regardless of how geographically distant they reside.

6. Contempt for postmodernist, relativist, and religious philosophy

Chomsky has levelled some of the most vicious critiques of postmodernist, relativist, and religious thinking I've yet to come across. Rationalists would enjoy this letter tearing apart 20th Century French theorists for incomprehensible and meaningless writing.

"The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."

In recorded interviews and lectures, he has also commented on the charlatanry of postmodernist intellectuals, the incoherence of extreme moral relativism, the stupidities of religion, and why the 9/11 terrorist attacks were likely not inside jobs. He has a rationalist's knack for seeing through bullshit.

7. Unusually high productivity

Chomsky has published over 100 books during his career, let alone academic essays, articles, and open letters. He also has hours upon hours of footage online from lectures and interviews on various subjects. He has possibly been in more high profile debates than anyone else in history: with WVO Quine, Michel Foucault, Hilary Putnam, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, George Lakoff, John Maynard Smith, Jean Piaget, Alan Dershowitz, and others. Currently in his 80s, he has continued to give lectures around the world.

Effective altruists are highly concerned with productivity because it allows one to maximize his or her life's contribution. Rationalists likewise are interested in efficiency. This is partially responsible for the abnormal levels of knowledgeability among AREAs.

* - * - * - * - *

Given these commonalities, I see Chomsky as a very close figure to the effective altruist and aspiring rationalist perspectives.

I think the main reasons why he isn't recognized as such are (1) he doesn't seem to quite come from the same literary genre and (2) he prioritizes different issues in his attempts to reduce suffering. He speaks mainly about politics, economics, abuses of power, and human rights violations, rather than about animal rights, future technologies, or donating to charity. 

I think his place in the pantheon of rationalist legends is as secure as anyone's.

Here: "In the sciences you have a framework of understanding. You pursue what you think is important but you maintain in the back of your mind the recognition you might be completely off on the wrong track... You say there's a "flood of criticism." Actually, I welcome it and I read it carefully and I look to see if anything's there that's valid and with astonishing consistency there's nothing."


  1. Thanks for this post. I'd echo what you said, and rationalism, in part, stems from the Enlightenment tradition which Chomsky endorses.

    I have seen other EAs take notice of Chomsky more recently. Luke Muehlhauser, for instance, has discussed Chomsky on his sites before, whilst Brian Tomasik mentioned an interesting, utilitarian-esque quote from Chomsky in his book 'Hegemony or Survival':

    "Actions are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences... The actual consequences of an action may be highly significant, but they do not bear on the moral evaluation of the action."

    If I'm not mistaken, this is why Chomsky is often seen to oppose military interventions that many, in hindsight, say did some good. Chomsky seems to apply an expected utility 'calculation' to his evaluation of whether a military intervention is justifiable or not, and, more often than not, he deems it to not be worth it.

    1. He's also been seen to act according to expected consequences in other areas, too. For example, in his voting decisions, he'll endorse a Democrat over a Republican if he's in a swing state, simply because he believes that Democrats are slightly better than Republicans.

      Furthermore, on the Israel-Palestine question, he believes that the Palestinian refugees do have a right to return, but does not advocate this as it would be too difficult to agree upon and may hinder the peace process.

      So, overall, I would agree that his perspective is very close to that of an EA.