A slice of The Eggplant

Sliced eggplant
Image courtesy Mike

I’ve web-published a new Introduction and Part One of In the Cells of the Eggplant. Here’s why you might want to read them—or not—and how to read them if you do.

The Eggplant is—or will be—a book about meta-rationality. “Meta-rationality” means improving technical practice through reflection on the relationship between rational systems and their surrounds. You may care about meta-rationality if you want to level up your work in science, engineering, or other fields that make use of formal systems.

I began writing The Eggplant almost three years ago, expecting it could be finished in a few months. Since then, circumstances have left me with little time to write, and I’ve finished only the first two out of five Parts of the book. I can’t guess when (or whether) I’ll be able to finish it. So I’ve decided to post those Parts, after minor tidying, which is now complete for the first.

Part One is mostly not about meta-rationality. Neither are Parts Two and Three. These three Parts explain preliminary concepts you need in order to understand meta-rationality, which the book explains in Parts Four and Five. To cover this extensive background material, none of which is original to me, I would rather refer readers to other sources. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find clear, detailed, accessible explanations elsewhere, so I’ve had to write them myself.

Part One is about rationalism: a mistaken and obsolete, but still often taken-for-granted, theory of rationality. Understanding rationalism’s errors is a prerequisite for understanding meta-rationalism, which includes a more accurate explanation of rationality. Unless you recognize that rationalism is wrong, you are unlikely to seriously consider an alternative. More significantly, specific failure modes of rationalism point directly to specifics of the more accurate understanding.

Reasons not to read Part One (or not yet)

The Introduction to the book overall explains what it is about, and why you might want to read it. Its section on “Is The Eggplant for you?” includes some reasons you might not, too!

There also are good reasons not to read Part One specifically, or at least not now.

First, The Eggplant builds a tall conceptual tower, with layers of concepts depending on previous ones. It might be best to read the whole thing at once, so the foundations are solid as you work you way up to higher stories. On the other hand, Part One makes sense by itself, and might be interesting for its own sake, and who knows when the rest will be available?

Second, Part One is about forty thousand words, or the equivalent of about a hundred and thirty printed pages. It’s my intention to publish The Eggplant as a conventional book eventually. Many readers say they’d rather have it that way than on the web. You may want to wait for a paper edition. On the other hand, if that includes the whole thing, it may not happen for years. I could publish Part One as a slim paperback by itself—but do you care enough about “how rationalism is wrong” to want just that? (Let me know in a comment below.) Or, since Part Two is also pretty nearly finished, and about the same length, the two could be bound together as typical-length book. But, although each stands alone reasonably well, they don’t form a coherent whole. Part Three, offering a better understanding of rationality, is built on Parts One and Two separately, and the first three Parts would make a cohesive package together. But Part Three is not ready. Maybe Parts One and Two could be two separate short books? I’m dithering, and would welcome advice.

Third, if you have built an identity around rationalism, there’s a danger that Part One will drop you into post-rationalist nihilism, which can be awful. You can avoid that if you have something beyond rationality to look forward to, and meta-rationality fits the bill. However, that part of the book isn’t written yet, so the antidote is not available.

I’ve delayed making Part One public until now, out of concern for precipitating post-rationalist nihilism. My hope is that it does more good than harm; but I’ve been going back and forth about this for months.

So, this is a serious request: please do not read Part One now if you are a committed rationalist. If you are curious, wait at least until you can read Part Three (which explains how rationality does work), and preferably Part Four (which explains how to do it better).

Start at the beginning

The Eggplant is not a collection of essays (much less a blog). It is a densely structured book, building up a complex system of concepts, most of which will be unfamiliar to most readers. Every chapter depends on earlier ones to make sense. I recommend beginning at the beginning, and reading forward in order. (Use the Navigation box at the end of each chapter to orient. Somehow, some readers miss that feature of the web site.)

In fact, I recommend starting with the introduction to the book overall, which explains its motivations, sets out some central concepts, and provides an overview.

I did a major revision of the Introduction a couple months ago. If you have read the version that was up on the web for a couple years before that, I’d recommend revisiting it. Much of the material is new. Skip over the bits you’ve already read, of course!

Indeed, when reading any book, skipping ahead is sensible when you encounter material you already know. Some readers may find much of Part One familiar. In that case, you might flip through it, read only unexpected bits, and go on to Part Two. (You are less likely to be able to do that with Part Two, or later Parts. Their sources are not commonly known.)

As with a paper book, it may be best to read The Eggplant within a narrow time slot, so that earlier concepts will be fresh in your mind as you need them to understand later ones. However, I plan to tweet links to one or two chapters per week, and to put those into the RSS/email feed on the same schedule.

Foreshadowings as exercises

Part One might, at first, sound like a polemical attack on an ideology or identity: namely, rationalism. That is not the intention, although I do hope it will loosen rationalism’s grip. The aim in carefully disassembling rationalism is not destruction, but understanding its misfunctioning, and clearing space for a better alternative. Part Three will reuse some of the same pieces, in a different configuration.

Most chapters in Part One explain some particular difficulty rationalism faces, and then sketch briefly how a different understanding can address the issue. Those positive alternatives foreshadow the detailed presentation on Part Three.

Since Part Three isn’t ready yet, I suggest taking each of these foreshadowings as an exercise to wrestle with. Can you figure out for yourself how to expand each hint into a detailed understanding of the issue? I’d suggest reflecting on your experience of both everyday life and of technical work, and consider how the vaguely-drawn alternative might explain them.

(This reflection is the work of meta-rationality itself! That is, meta-rationality just is considering how rationality and mere reasonableness play out in practice, largely by examining specific cases.)

It may help to skip ahead and read “The parable of the pebbles,” which is the only chapter of Part Three that’s on the web so far. It’s a condensed version of the Part’s explanation of merely-reasonable “circumrationality,” which is one main aspect of its explanation of rationality overall.

Part Two

As I publish this metablog post, all but two of the chapters of Part Two are also finished and published on the web. So you can read most of it now if you want.

Part Two’s function in the book is to explain “mere reasonableness” in general—for example, in making breakfast. That is a prerequisite to Part Three’s explanation of circumrationality: the more specific types of merely-reasonable work we do to make formal rationality work. So, while reading Part Two, I’d suggest keeping in mind the questions “How can this sort of work address the problems rationalism ran into? How would it help make technical rationality function well in practice?”

The chapter on reasonable ontology is probably the most important, and it’s one of the two unfinished ones. You may want to wait for it before starting Part Two. On the other hand, it’s near the end of the Part, and it’s likely I’ll get it done soon—before you get that far. (It’s mostly written, but I have to work out some issues in how it interfaces with Part Three.)

The rest of the book, and Meaningness

The Eggplant was my highest priority for writing from late 2017 up until covid hit. Reflecting on mortality made me feel that it’s more important to go back and finish some of the core Meaningness material.

A couple months ago, I wrote, and web-published, about half of the central chapter of Meaningness, which is “The complete stance.” That’s more important than The Eggplant, I think. Consider reading it instead, or first? If you haven’t already.

I also web-published some bits of the purpose chapter—mostly versions from 2007 that I decided are good enough, even if I’d write them a bit differently thirteen years later.

Then I decided that, since Parts One and Two of The Eggplant were nearly ready to go, I might as well polish them up and web-publish them.

My intention now—after finishing the last bits of The Eggplant Part Two—is to finish the complete stance chapter, and then to write some more of the nihilism and purpose chapters. I’ll concentrate on explaining the antidotes to the confused stances that cause us so much misery. That was the original motivation for Meaningness, and I want to get back to it.

My intention for Meaningness in the mid-2000s was a normal-length book, not the sprawling million-word monstrosity it has grown into. If I get time enough to write, I want to go back to that plan. A normal-length paperback summary introduction to the major themes: perhaps by the end of this year, if all goes very well!