Hyper-Rational Harry

As long as we on the subject of magic, let me heartily recommend my ex-co-blogger’s fanfic novel:

Eliezer Yudkowsky is writing a Harry Potter fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, starring a rationalist Harry Potter with ambitions to transform the world by bringing the rationalist/scientific method to magic. (more)

I am enjoying it more than all but the first Harry Potter novels. Modern science fiction has shied away from the hard-headed rational scientist as moral hero, and it feels quite refreshing to see that genre back in a full and updated force. The book does a good job of giving basic rationality “lessons” in the context of an engaging-enough story, though the story gets a bit less engaging over time.

My main discomfort with Eliezer’s new scientist-hero genre is his beyond-Enders-Game-level over-competent hero, exceptionally moral and vastly smarter than anyone else around. This young teen hero has already mostly assimilated the wisdom of his elders and ancestors and must now mostly single-handedly solve the great mysteries of his world and fight the great evil of his age, while politely ignoring the mostly useless opinions of others. I fear that giving readers more license to imagine they are such a person mostly undoes the rationality lessons they learned. After all, much of real rationality is learning how to learn from others. But it is still a fun read.

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  • Alexander Kruel

    Here is more good fiction (lots of free stuff too):
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/2un/references_resources_for_lesswrong/#FicFun

    Especially ‘Three Worlds Collide’ (A story to illustrate some points on naturalistic metaethics and diverse other issues of rational conduct):
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/y4/three_worlds_collide_08/

    Free Hard SF Novels & Short Stories:
    http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/2ul/free_hard_sf_novels_short_stories/

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I don’t think one can accurately be “exceptionally moral” without being inhumanly repugnant because of commission/ommission bias. That’s why I think there tends to be more truth in dark comedy than in humanistic writing.

  • komponisto

    Much of real rationality is learning how to learn from others.

    Yes, I would probably pinpoint this as your single most important disagreement with Eliezer, one of whose sayings is “people are crazy, the world is mad”.

    Of course both of these things are true; it’s a question of which is more important for a given person at a given time. You like to caution people against assuming they’re special; whereas Eliezer starts with a special person and tries to figure out what they should do.

    Also, I wouldn’t say that Eliezer’s Harry is “vastly smarter than anyone else around”. He’s not vastly smarter than Quirrell, and even Dumbledore knows a thing or two that Harry doesn’t; meanwhile, Draco and Hermione seem to have at least the potential to “catch up” to Harry.

  • http://aarlo.com Aarlo

    Re komponisto’s comment –

    Maybe Eliezer sees himself as more special than Robin does. So he’s used to thinking from the POV of that special person.

  • Fubar Obfusco

    Eliezer’s Harry isn’t perfect; but he consistently wishes he were, and takes the possibility seriously.

    He’s subject to failings both moral and rational. For two examples, see his treatment of Neville Longbottom and of Severus Snape. In the former case, Harry managed to rationalize bullying a fellow student for fun, and only realized it was wrong when someone he cared about called him out for it. In the latter case, he first lost his temper out of indignation toward a teacher, and was saved only by Dumbledore’s apparently irrationally high valuation of Harry himself; and then went on to further offend that teacher by pretending to be wise when he had no idea what he was talking about.

    Eliezer presents us with a wizarding world where high levels of rationality are at least as rare as they are in our own world, if not more so due to the explicit rejection of “science” by wizards who associate it with “doing pointless things to rats”. But in this world, rationality conveys much more rapid and dramatic benefits than in our own — up to and including new spells (rot13: Cngebahf 2.0) capable of reshaping the world in large, sudden ways.

    In this sense, a possibly more pointed literary criticism of Eliezer’s Harry is that he is the Mighty Whitey, who has moved in on the benighted wizarding world and is doing it better than the natives. If rationality wins even more heavily in the wizarding world than in the Muggle world, then why hasn’t anyone noticed before?

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    One of the interesting things I’ve learned from writing this is that people vary a lot in how often they want their protagonists to succeed. If you look at the reviews, then prior to chapter 45, you can see reviews complaining that Harry is failing too much and they want to see him succeed at something already.

    • karl

      I think people want a reasonable approximation of how successful they would be in the same circumstances, and thus I wish he would fail a lot more :p
      Honestly, I am surprised it took this long for someone to almost die, and harry managed to stop it anyway. If Quirrel kicked his plans (whatever they are) into high gear, or if Harry at least discovered some of what they were, it would probably help people empathize better. The sudden increase in challenge would tend to unite people with the feeling “If is was there, I would be so screwed”, and it also forces harry to cooperate more with other light characters. In the last chapter you started doing that, but I am still not convinced harry is in too deep yet :p another side of the issue is that harry fails often at things they feel SHOULD be easy, sometimes because they underestimate the difficulty of research, and other times because harry has very limited social skills.

  • Vladimir Slepnev

    Hmm. I have the exact same complaint as Robin, and have expressed it back in May: “Harry’s aura of awesome is not only due to his being a rationalist. He also survived Voldemort’s attack, has a prophecy about him, and possesses ‘the killing spirit’ – neither of which were caused by his rationality. Why not make him exceptionally strong and irresistibly handsome as well?” And he’s been getting even more overpowered since then, with the new charm and the new language and… a this point I see two possible ways out of this mess: 1) Harry’s powers are part of someone else’s dark plot, or 2) Harry fails and some regular human saves the day, like in a certain other prominent work of internet fiction.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      . . . or 2) Harry fails and some regular human saves the day, like in a certain other prominent work of internet fiction

      .
      Forgive my ignorance, but to what work are you referring?

      • Vladimir Slepnev

        Fine Structure, by Sam Hughes.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > This young teen hero has already mostly assimilated the wisdom of his elders and ancestors and must now mostly single-handedly solve the great mysteries of his world and fight the great evil of his age, while politely ignoring the mostly useless opinions of others. I fear that giving readers more license to imagine they are such a person mostly undoes the rationality lessons they learned.

    It’s worth noting that as a work-in-progress, it may be premature to diagnose Harry this way.

    Some of the knows-better comments are just Eliezer pulling a David Brin, if you will, and pointing out how reprehensible Rowling’s wizard society is by our ordinary values.

    Some recent chapters are – in the opinion of a number of LWers – a setup for a massive ‘my bad’ by Harry.

  • Evan

    Robin, I think a lot of the elements you have misgivings about come from the typical problems of fiction, namely that a character has to be extraordinary to be interesting. In order for rational Harry to be more interesting to a reader than canon Harry, he has to be shown accomplishing more. Otherwise his rationality will seem like pointless window-dressing. The problem is, canon Harry already accomplishes quite a lot for someone his age. So in order to show rationality as an advantage, Eliezer has to show rationalist Harry accomplishing even more astoundingly heroic things than the already incredibly heroic canon Harry.

  • burger flipper

    Is it completed, or more chapters to come?

  • hf

    @burger: More to come, but if someone actually packaged it as a series of books I think they could legitimately end Volume One with a certain existing chapter.

  • Desertopa

    Harry’s survival of Voldemort’s attack and having a prophesy about him are both necessary to follow the canon of the Harry Potter series. My impression of Harry’s “killing spirit” though, is that it’s intended to be a flaw, rather than a strength. It’s a mark of how Harry’s inclinations are out of step with his ideals.

  • Frank Adamek

    My guess is that the majority of people who read HP fan-fics aren’t doing an exceptional amount with their time and careers anyway, especially those who like to imagine themselves as the heroes of fan fictions. It is a loss if they were to fritter away potential by just imagining their own greatness, but I think this factor is outweighed by presenting an admirable, impressive, and generally desirable ideal, demonstrating possibilities both worthwhile and distinct. Even the general baseline of rationality would reveal to (almost?) all readers that they do not have the braininess of Harry, but there is a widespread message that anyone can improve greatly by improving their rationality, and become somewhat exceptional even with below-average intelligence. E.g. it’s not hard to be way ahead of the pack on cryonics.

    Regarding the greater benefit of rationality in the wizarding world, this follows not that surprisingly from realizing the benefits rational science provided to the nonwizarding world. While the canon doesn’t necessitate that knowledge of quantum physics allows partial Transfiguration, keep in mind that not all of Harry’s rational explorations proved as helpful as he had anticipated.

    I don’t find it that odd that there had been no significant application of rationality to wizarding before Harry, given the small size of the magical population and the extremely small percentage of people who have really grasped the core of science, not just the genre. The scientific method has only been around for a few hundred years, and the wizarding world would be quite accustomed to overlooking muggle developments, having been so comparatively trivial for thousands of years. The real application of the scientific method also gets rid of religion, but hundreds of years later, look how strong that’s still going.

  • Paul Cossins

    I’m enjoying the read, but can’t help notice that while Harry has a “Mum” not a “Mom” he does “math” rather than “maths”, and goes into a “bookstore” rather than a “bookshop.”

  • Doc Merlin

    Reminds me of the “less wrong” site. Where everyone uses logical fallacies to attack other people’s usages of logical fallacies.

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    I wonder what Robin makes of the Quirrel character, now that we’ve seen plenty of him…