Smart, strange, creative, curious, alive, emotive
He is so smart, and so strange, and so creative, and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive, that it is a distinct privilege to spend time in his head.
Think of this book as something emotive —as the expression of a mood. An incredibly cool mood. A mood that (maybe) no human being could ever have been in before right now. A mood informed by profound and imaginative reflection on the best and most advanced science we have.
To read him is to experience the thrill of the highest level of discourse available on this planet and to understand it.
There’s a specific style of seeing, writing, thinking and being that I’m starting to recognize and that has profoundly influenced me for over a decade now.
I identify it specially with writers like physicist David Deustch, historian Yuval Noah Harari 1, scifi writer & mathematician Greg Egan, psychologist & lecturer Jordan B. Peterson, journalist Quinn Norton, philosopher & ethicist David Pearce, programmer & essayist Kevin Simler, programmer & VC Paul Graham, angel investor Naval Ravikant, nanotech scientist John Storrs Hall, programmer Kevin Lawler, journalist Virginia Postrel, Netscape founder & VC Marc Andreessen, philosopher Karl Popper, writer Eliezer Yudkowsky, neuroscientist & “new atheist” Sam Harris, sociologist Bruno Latour, almost everyone in Edge’s third culture online salon…
As in that (justifiably) breathless NYT review quoted at the start, this style is characterized by being smart, strange, creative, curious, alive, emotive. It’s hyper-rational AND hyper-creative. Rationality here doesn’t mean Spock narrowness or a claim to perfection or infallibility, rather it’s about striving to not fool oneself or others, to find clarity & good explanations and to follow them where they take you.
It is a fundamentally optimistic style, essayistic (an attempt, to figure out things for oneself), exploratory, bold (daring to be wrong but hoping to at least be wrong in new, interesting ways), and amateurish (done out of love). A lot of it is, not coincidentally, in English.
It’s a style conversant with computers, modern science & math, but not circumscribed to them. It’s poetic, emotional & mythic in its own way: its most characteristic emotions are a sense of wonder and a sense of possibility. It assumes naturalism & atheism as a matter of course but is not defined in antagonism to religion: Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Religion as Symbolism is one of the best essays I’ve read while still being perfectly clear & naturalistic.
But perhaps it’s most distinguishing feature is a first-hand appreciation that progress (most visible in science and technology) is a real, important and accelerating feature of our lives.
This Great Conversation is the one I want to be a part of. It is a lively, increasingly self-aware, conversation going on in Silicon Valley (Mark, Bill), London, and all across the developed world, but it lives most naturally here on the (English) web.
1 Naval summarizes the first part of Sapiens thus: for the rest of the biosphere, the rise of the sapiens primate was like an AI fast takeoff. Or as Yuval puts it his myth-appropriating style, we humans were the flood and farm animals serve as the galley slaves in the Noah’s Ark that is to them our civilization.