Monday 5 January 2015


For this month's Figuring Good Out, the topic is "EA origin stories." I don't think of myself as "an EA" and I can't remember how things happened very well. Looking back, the years blend together and I can't quite remember the cause-and-effect of it all. But here's a story.

I've always been interested in philosophical questions and arguments. I think my main obsessions as a teenager were art (what makes "good art" good?), morality (what makes "good deeds" good?), and atheism. Coming from a broken home where I spent alternating weekends with my orthodox Jewish father and my basically-secular Jewish mother, I grew up in a uniquely good environment to produce anti-religious views. I'd go from eating McDonald's one day to waiting six hours between meat and dairy the next. One Saturday I'd watch cartoons all day and eat in front of the TV. The next Saturday I'd have to go to synagogue and sit silently through kiddush. Who could grow up in these conditions and see the religious bits as anything other than unnecessary inconveniences?

I never lost my faith, I just never believed to begin with. I remember one of the teachers at my Jewish high school asking the class about their religious beliefs. I was surprised at all the hands going up. I remember walking home as a teenager and the thought occurring to me for the first time that everyone else actually believes this stuff. When hearing the stories from the Old Testament as a kid, I had always thought of them as fables like Jack and the Beanstalk and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It had weirdly never really occurred to me that everybody around me, including the adults, thought Jonah and the Whale was non-fiction.

When the New Atheism movement emerged, I was an easy sell. Dawkins and Hitchens led me to Harris and Dennett, who led me to Pinker, Krauss, and Singer, who led me to the Churchlands and to science communicators like Michio Kaku, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, and Dan Ariely. And the arguments against religion brought me to David Hume and Bertrand Russell and the circle kept expanding. 

I took some philosophy electives in school: Intro to Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind, and then another course that talked exclusively about Kant for the first half (and then apparently talked exclusively about Hegel for the second half but I stopped going by that point). I kept reading. Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape got me to change my mind about one of my favourite topics. At the time, I had a softer stance on morality where nothing could be objectively good or bad because something-about-culture. Still though, becoming a consequentialist had no real effect on my behaviour. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and did nothing.

Fortunately, I had already read two books by Peter Singer in my first year of university. The first, The Life You Can Save, I read after my Philosophy of Science teacher told our class about an argument that one moral philosopher makes for giving to the poor. He confessed that although the argument had initially made him feel guilty, he'd found possible weak points in the philosopher's premises after further consideration. I had never heard of Peter Singer before but I, for one, had not been able to find these weak points and was still feeling guilty. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and did nothing.

The second book I read by Peter Singer was Animal Liberation. I had always been kind of sympathetic to animal suffering but never really cared enough to inconvenience myself over it. Singer's book was an eye opener for me. He kept quoting this amazing passage by Jeremy Bentham (who I'd never heard of) that made everything clear. Although I became very confident that eating animals was immoral, and tentatively thought that I would like to become a vegetarian in the future, my general stance on the issue was: eating meat is bad but I just don't care. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and still I did nothing.

This sort of pop philosophy and pop science became one of my main past times. I read articles from my favourite philosophers on a daily basis. A friend and I began a pact where every day we'd send each other one new article to read. I remember the excitement I'd found when, after about a week of doing this, I discovered Daniel Dennett's Tufts University page online. It contained the PDFs for what seemed to be every article he'd ever written, spanning back several decades. I decided to read through all of them in order, a few each day. I never got more than a few articles deep. My friend called me one day to tell me that everything had changed - that he had found enough reading material to keep us both busy for ages - it was endless - it was all compiled into neat sections on this one website - and so my attention turned toward LessWrong.

My friend had been in a phase of figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, so he was emailing all sorts of folks in various professional fields to ask for advice. One of these people worked for an organization called the Singularity Institute. The employee (Malo), sent my friend a long list of reading material, including the Sequences. I began reading and it was right up my alley.

There's a specific feeling I get when I have more exciting reading material than I have energy to stay up any longer. I can't remember how long it took me to read the Sequences but I know that I was reading for hours a day and I have particularly warm memories of the How to Actually Use Words section.

Through these, I got into "rationality" and became more interested in cognitive biases. I read Thinking, Fast and Slow and it became my new favourite book. I read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. I read Luke Muehlhauser's Common Sense Atheism blog basically cover to cover within a month. I read mountains of material, agreed with many arguments, changed my beliefs many times, and still I did nothing.

At some point, I heard the term "effective altruism." It may have been on LessWrong. It may have been on Luke's podcast. It may have been from Peter Singer. Or from my friend. Or from following Eliezer Yudkowsky on Facebook. The origin of my EA story is the fuzziest part of my EA origin story. At any rate, I discovered the movement and felt no resistance to any of its ideas. As mentioned earlier, I had already bought Singer's argument for EA from the moment my teacher told it to my class, years prior.

The ideas had grown on me to the point that I was becoming more interested in all this rationality and philosophy talk than I was in the topic of my career and education. When I entered my MA in Media Production, I had no ideas at all for the sort of creative video project I had planned to produce. My mind was in philosophy mode. A couple of epiphanies about art later, I decided to write a thesis paper about what an effective altruist worldview has to say about artistic value. My paper transformed many times in the telling but it sort of stuck to that theme.

In the early days of researching my paper, I began to realize how big my topic was. If I wanted it to be as good as my favourite books and papers, I'd have to learn a lot more. I emailed Brian Tomasik, whose blog I had been reading. In hindsight, I don't know why I emailed him given that my project had so little to do with his subject matter. He responded that no, I didn't need to learn game theory and to my surprise, he added me on Facebook. For the past year or so, I've asked Brian a totally random question on Facebook about once a month ("hey, so how does eating meat compare to buying from Nike?"). He played a big part (along with the documentary, Earthlings) in me finally becoming a vegetarian.

Now that I think about it, when I first emailed Brian, I asked him if I could join the Foundational Research Institute, naively thinking that I was qualified. He responded that I should create my own blog to showcase my abilities. I started A Nice Place To Live and posted 1+ post a day for the first month with Brian as my only reader.

Slowly, in incremental steps, I approached the cluster of properties associated with effective altruism. I started reading GiveWell's blog. I familiarized myself with more theory on existential risk. I completed my thesis paper. I once donated $50 to the Against Malaria Foundation. But really, I've changed very little.

Now, I participate in the EA blogging carnival that I created, post on the EA forum, have a bunch of EA Facebook friends, and I think a lot of EAs know who I am but I'm not sure about that. If at some point in this story, I crossed the threshold of EA-dom, I cannot point to any explicit point of origin.

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