If you wanted to communicate as much as possible to someone about your worldview by asking them to read just five books, which five books would you choose?
My choices are below. If you post your answer to this question to Twitter, please use the hash tag #WorldviewIn5Books (like I did), so everyone posting their list can find each other.
1. Eliezer Yudkowsky, Rationality: From AI to Zombies
A singular introduction to critical thinking, rationality, and naturalistic philosophy. Both more advanced and more practically useful than any comparable guide I’ve encountered.
2. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture
If Yudkowsky’s book is “how to think 101,” then Carroll’s book is “what to think 101,” i.e. an introduction to what exists and how it works, according to standard scientific naturalism.
3. William MacAskill, Doing Good Better
My current favorite “how to do good 101” book, covering important practical considerations such as scale of impact, tractability, neglectedness, efficiency, cause neutrality, counterfactuals, and some strategies for thinking about expected value across diverse cause areas.
Importantly, it’s missing (a) a quick survey of the strongest arguments for and against utilitarianism, and (b) much discussion of near-term vs. animal-inclusive vs. long-term views and their implications (when paired with lots of empirical facts). But those topics are understandably beyond the book’s scope, and in any case there aren’t yet any books with good coverage of (a) and (b), in my opinion.1
4. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now
Almost everything has gotten dramatically better for humans over the past few centuries, likely substantially due to the spread and application of reason, science, and humanism.2
5. Toby Ord, forthcoming book about the importance of the long-term future
Yes, listing a future book is cheating, but I’m doing it anyway. The importance of the long-term future plays a big role in my current worldview, but there isn’t yet a book that captures my views on the topic well, and from my correspondence with Toby so far, I suspect his forthcoming book on the topic will finally do the topic justice. While you’re waiting for the book to be released, you can get a preview via this podcast interview with Toby.
A few notes about my choices
- These aren’t my favorite books, nor the books that most influenced me historically. Rather, these are the books that best express key aspects of my worldview. In other words, they are the books I’d most want someone else to read first if we were about to have a long and detailed debate about something complicated, so they’d have some sense of “where I’m coming from.”
- Obviously, there is plenty in these books that I disagree with.
- I didn’t include any giant college textbooks or encyclopedias; that’d be cheating.
- I wish there was a book that summarized many of my key political views, but in my case, I doubt any such book exists.
- Economic thinking also plays a big role in my worldview, but I’ve not yet found a book that I think does a good job of integrating economic theory with careful, skeptical discussions of the most relevant empirical data (which often come from fields outside economics, and often differ from the predictions of economic models) across a decent range of the most important questions in economics.3
- These books are all quite recent. Older books suffer from their lack of access to recent scientific and philosophical progress, for example (a) the last several decades of the cognitive science of human reasoning, (b) the latest estimates of the effectiveness of various interventions to save and improve people’s lives, (c) the latest historical and regional estimates of various aspects of human well-being and their correlates, and (d) recent arguments about moral uncertainty and what to do about it.
As always, these are my views and not my employer’s.
- On utilitarianism, there are of course books such as Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, Utilitarianism: For and Against, The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism, Practical Ethics, and Moral Tribes, but these books don’t much discuss what I consider to be the strongest arguments for utilitarianism, in particular some points related to what we’d value if we knew more and thought longer and some other arguments discussed briefly in this interview (starting at “What are the arguments for classical utilitarianism?” in the transcript). [↩]
- Pinker’s chapter on existential risk is the one I most disagree with. [↩]
- Example books that do this fairly well on particular narrow topics include Roodman’s Due Diligence and Caplan’s The Case Against Education. [↩]