Ideal College Education for an Aspiring Rationalist?

post by Collisteru · 2021-07-13T01:39:58.524Z · LW · GW · 11 comments

This is a question post.

Hello! I'm a rising computer science freshman in college. I got enough high school credit to fulfill over half of my general education requirements, which got me thinking...

Let's imagine that my only goal in college is to become the best rationalist ever. What classes should I take? Please don't just say "math," be as specific as possible: differential equations or Diophantine?  Every credit counts here, and college students don't have much time.

If you need a reminder, here's a decent example PDF for what college courses typically teach which things. Hopefully the relative homogeneity of college courses (especially in STEM) will make your answer applicable to any university.

Thank you.


answer by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-07-13T02:08:04.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd recommend a complete year of calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, statistics, and probability. Study programming, even if self-taught. Take micro- and macroeconomics.  Spend enough time bullshitting about philosophy to know what philosophical bullshit sounds like, and take a course in logic (which I missed and miss). Also at least one humanities or sociology class, so that you have the opportunity to do a fair amount of writing.

I think that at the undergraduate level, it's important to build the tools to express yourself and not be overawed by other people's deployment of math and jargon and cynicism. Think of all these tools as a sort of language that we're all groping toward for more precise and powerful conversations.

I also think that the ability to manipulate physical objects and think visually is an important skill, one neglected in the text-based online rationalist community. Your interest in robotics (I see from your user page) might be a good way to build on that.

We're all making this up as we go along. Check citations to make sure they actually support the cited claim. Best of luck!

answer by aphyer · 2021-07-13T04:05:59.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you don't feel like you 'get' reductionism on a gut level, the course that nailed that down for me was called 'Computation Structures' - name may vary on your end, but it's a class about how transistors and logic gates are built up through several layers of abstraction until you have a recognizably programmable computer.

As a side note, if you're willing to adopt a more pragmatic attitude towards what constitutes a 'rational' college class, may I suggest searching for information on which majors are highest-paid? :)

comment by wolajacy · 2021-07-13T11:25:30.304Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a great (free) online course called 'NAND to Tetris', which is built on this exact premisse. Can't recommend it enough:

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-07-15T13:22:34.106Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if this is related or just a similar idea:

comment by Raven · 2021-07-13T21:20:50.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That class and then an internship at a semiconductor factory thoroughly dispelled any lingering mysticism around computers.

comment by TAG · 2021-07-14T18:51:49.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Computers are an example of reductionism (and , usually, determinism) par excellence, but they don't prove either to be true universally. You also need to notice that it takes very precise engineering to achieve multiple 9s reliability, or a neat, reductionistic separation between layers. They are not handed to you on a plate by the laws of physics.

answer by moridinamael · 2021-07-13T15:54:47.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is an interview I conducted with a college professor friend of mine about how to get the most out of education. I have provided a timecode link to the part where we start talking about college.

Edit: An incomplete tl;dr would be: Don't go to a large university, go to a small PUI (Primarily Undergraduate Institution) where the focus of the professors will be teaching rather than research and grant-writing. Teaching a course well is a full-time job, but teaching is the third of fourth priority for university professors. The other answers on this post are probably adequate for deciding what to major in.

answer by dvasya · 2021-07-13T05:46:07.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aside from basic math (calculus, linear algebra, probability, ODE, all with proofs), take courses in topics that feel interesting to you just by themselves. Don't count on things you learn being actually useful in real life, and accordingly don't try to prioritize courses by that metric. You'll learn what you need for your job by yourself or be taught at the job anyway, so instead spend this time building up an inventory of things to draw upon for useful metaphors. It's easier to learn what's intrinsically interesting so you'll end up learning more. For real world skills, do some academic research projects and industry internships.

answer by River · 2021-07-13T02:11:32.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't try to fill half your college credits with an informal major in rationality, if that's what you are thinking. Things I would pick up:

  • how to prove things - I picked this up taking theory of computation, but a course on something like "introduction to proof" or something in a math department is just as good. The point is to be able to think with mathematical rigor and precision.
  • introductory statistics, if you don't already have it. This could be AP statistics in high school, or any social science department will have its own course that covers basically the same content. It is good to have this basic level of fluency, to understand what a p-value is and isn't, how a study is put together, what a regression model is, etc. More advanced statistics isn't really necessary to be a good rationalist in general, but may or may not be useful for research you may want to do later.
  • Being able to read and write well is important. Despite majoring in technical things, I made a point of taking at least one course in a humanities or social science department every semester.
  • A lot of rationalist ideas draw on cognitive psychology, and to a lesser extent social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I think you can pick up the important stuff just as well by reading popular books and blogs (psychology is a field where there isn't much distance between the popular and technical understandings). But if you aren't doing that and want to pay the big bucks for a formal class, go for it.

Ultimately, though, if you've got a lot of credits going in, the best use may be to graduate early and move on to whatever you want to do after college. Whatever you want to do after college, you'll learn more of what you need faster by being out there doing it, and you won't even have to pay ridiculously high tuition bills for the learning.

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-07-13T13:30:35.133Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being able to write well is important but it's important to keep in mind that the goal of writting in a college course is very different from the goal of writing elsewhere.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by dkirmani · 2021-07-13T02:56:19.618Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm in a very similar situation to yours! I'm also a rising CS freshman, and I'm also bringing a ton of credit from high school (2/3rds of an associate's degree). However, taking a class in a given subject tends to actually reduce my intrinsic interest in it. I think this could be downstream of my low agreableness making me less accepting to knowledge I feel is externally imposed, or maybe that I end up associating the stress / drudgery of exams and assignments with the subject matter.

To echo River, I'm probably just going to use my credit to get my degree earlier, or at the very least eliminate gen-eds so that I have more time to work on projects of my own choosing. I transferred from a normal American public school to a public STEM magnet school. If you're coming from a relatively low-workload high school, you might be surprised at the change in emotional valence that accompanies an increased workload. I definitely was.