Steelmanning Divination

post by Vaniver · 2019-06-05T22:53:54.615Z · score: 123 (40 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 28 comments

[This post was primarily written in 2015, after I gave a related talk, and other bits in 2018; I decided to finish writing it now because of a recent SSC post.]

The standard forms of divination that I’ve seen in contemporary Western culture--astrology, fortune cookies, lotteries, that sort of thing--seem pretty worthless to me. They’re like trying to extract information from a random number generator, which is a generally hopeless phenomenon because of conservation of expected evidence [LW · GW]. Thus I had mostly written off divination; although I've come across some arguments that divination served as a way to implement mixed strategies in competitive games. (Hunters would decide where to hunt by burning bones, which generated an approximately random map of their location, preventing their targets from learning where the humans liked to hunt and avoiding that location.) But then I came across this striking passage, and sat up straight:

One performs the rain sacrifice and it rains. Why? I say: there is no special reason why. It is the same as when one does not perform the rain sacrifice and it rains anyway. When the sun and moon suffer eclipse, one tries to save them. When Heaven sends drought, one performs the rain sacrifice. One performs divination and only then decides on important affairs. But this is not to be regarded as bringing one what one seeks, but rather is done to give things proper form. Thus, the gentleman regards this as proper form, but the common people regard it as connecting with spirits. If one regards it as proper form, one will have good fortune. If one regards it as connecting with spirits, one will have misfortune.

This is from Eric L. Hutton's translation of a collection of essays called Xunzi (presumably written by Xunzi, an ancient Chinese philosopher who was Confucian with heavy Legalist influences). The book was overall remarkable in how much of Xunzi's brilliance shone through, which is something I very rarely think about authors. (Talking to another rationalist who was more familiar with Chinese philosophy than I was, he also had this impression that Xunzi simply had a lot more mental horsepower than many other core figures.) By the end of it, I was asking myself, "if they had this much of rationality figured out back then, why didn't they conquer the world?" Then I looked into the history a bit more and figured out that two of Xunzi's students were core figures in Qin Shi Huang's unification of China to become the First Emperor.

So this paragraph stuck with me. When Xunzi talks about the way that earlier kings did things, I registered it as an applause light and moved on. When he talked about how an important role of government was to prevent innovation in music, I registered it as covering a very different thing than what I think of when I think about 'music' and moved on. But when he specifically called out the reason why I (and most educated people I know) don't pay much attention to astrology or other sorts of divination or magic, said "yeah, those would be dumb reasons to do this," and then said "but there's still a reason", I was curious. What's the proper form that he's talking about? (Sadly, this was left as an exercise for the reader; the surrounding paragraphs are only vaguely related.)

In his introduction, Hutton summarizes the relevant portion of Xunzi's philosophy:

In this process of becoming good, ritual plays an especially important role in Xunzi's view. As he conceives them, the rituals constitute a set of standards for proper behavior that were created by the past sages and should govern virtually every aspect of a person's life. These rituals are not inviolable rules: Xunzi allows that people with developed moral judgment may need to depart from the strict dictates of ritual on some occasions, but he thinks those just beginning the process of moral learning need to submit completely to the requirements of ritual. Of the many important roles played by the rituals in making people good on Xunzi's view, three particularly deserve mention here. First the rituals serve to display certain attitudes and emotions. The ritually prescribed actions in the case of mourning, for instance, exhibit grief over the loss of a loved one, whether or not the ritual practitioner actually feels sadness. Second, even if the ritual practitioner does not actually feel the particular attitude or emotion embodied in the ritual, Xunzi believes that repeated performance of the ritual can, when done properly, serve to cultivate those attitudes and emotions in the person. To use a modern example, toddlers who do not know to be grateful when given a gift may be taught to say "thank you" and may do so without any understanding of its meaning or a feeling or gratitude. With repetition, time, and a more mature understanding of the meaning of the phrase, many of these children grow into adults who not only feel gratitude upon receiving gifts but also say "thank you" as a conscious expression of that feeling. Similarly, on Xunzi's view, rituals serve to inculcate attitudes and feelings, such as caring and respect, that are characteristic of virtue, and then serve to express a person's virtue once it is fully developed. A third important function of the rituals is to allot different responsibilities, privileges, and goods to different individuals, and thereby help to prevent conflict over those things among people.

So what is cultivated by performing divination?


The first step is figuring out what sort of divination we're discussing. Xunzi probably had in mind the I Ching, a book with 64 sections, each corresponding to a situation or perspective, and advice appropriate for that situation. In the simplest version, one generates six random bits and then consults the appropriate chapter. I actually tried this for about a month, and then have done it off and on since then. I noticed several things about it that seemed useful:

Essentially, it looked to me like the steelman of divination is something like Oblique Strategies, where challenging situations (either ‘daily life’ or a specific important decision) are responded to by random access to a library of perspectives or approaches, and the particular claim made by a source is what distribution is most useful. There was previously an attempt on LW [LW · GW] to learn what advice was useful, but I think on the wrong level of abstraction (the ‘do X’ variety, instead of the ‘think about X’ variety).

This approach has also served me well with other forms of divination I've since tried; a Tarot deck works by focusing your attention on a situation, and then randomly generating a frame (from an implied distribution of relevant symbols), giving one access to parts of the space that they wouldn't have considered otherwise. This also trains the habit of 'understanding alien frames'; if I am considering a conflict with another person and then have to figure out what it means that "I'm the vizier of water, the relationship is the three of earth, and the other person is strength" (where, of course, each of those is in fact an image rich in detail rather than a simple concept), this trains the habit of adopting other perspectives / figuring out how things make sense from the other point of view.

28 comments

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comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-06-06T19:27:51.860Z · score: 23 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Some years ago I got interested in the Yi Jing after reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which features the Yi Jing prominently where the book within the book (which is the alternate dimension/history version of The Man in the High Castle) is written by using the Yi Jing to make plot decisions and one of the characters relies on it heavily to navigate life. I went on to write a WebOS Yi Jing phone app so I could more easily consult it from my phone and played around with it myself.

My experience of it was mostly that it offered me nothing I wasn't already doing on my own, but I could see how it would have been helpful to others who lack my particular natural disposition to letting my mind go quiet and seeing what it has to tell me. As you note, it seems a good way to be able to step back and consider something from a different angle, and to consider different aspects of something you may be currently ignoring. The commentary on the Yi Jing is carefully worded such that it's more about the decision generation process than the decision itself, and when used well I think can result in the sort of sudden realization of the action you will take the same way my sitting quietly and waiting for insight does.

I also know a decent number of rationalists who enjoy playing with Tarot cards for seemingly this same reason. Tarot works a bit different because it more tells a story than highlights a virtue, but I think like you much of the value comes from placing an random framing on events, injecting noise into an otherwise too stable algorithm, and helping people get out of local maxima/minima traps.

I'd also include rubber ducking as a modern divination method. I think it does something similar, but by using a different method to get you to see things more clearly and find out what you already implicitly knew but weren't making explicit enough to let it have an impact on your actions. My speculation at a possible mechanism of action here is something like what happens when I sit quietly with a decision and wait for an answer: you let the established patterns of thought get out of the way and let other things come through so you can consider them, in part because you can generate your own internal noise if you stop trying to direct your thought. But not everyone finds this easy or possible, in which case more traditional divination methods with external noise injection are likely useful.

comment by Bucky · 2019-06-06T09:38:22.694Z · score: 20 (10 votes) · LW · GW

In an innovation workshop we were taught the following technique:

Make a list of 6 things your company is good at

Make a list of 6 applications of your product(s)

Make a list of 6 random words (Disney characters? City names?)

Roll 3 dice and select the corresponding words from the lists. Think about those 3 words and see what ideas you can come up with based on them.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that this was the best technique which we were taught. I knew constrained creativity was a thing but I think using this technique really drove the point home. I don't think this is quite the same thing as traditional divination (e.g. you can repeat this a few times and then choose your best idea) but I wonder if it is relying on similar principles.

comment by Vaniver · 2019-06-05T23:04:54.985Z · score: 12 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The SSC post that motivated finally finishing this up was Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success [LW · GW], which discusses the game-theoretic validity of randomization in competitive endeavors (like hunters vs. prey, or generals vs. generals). It seemed important to also bring up the other sorts of validity, of randomness as debiasing or de-confounding (like why randomized controlled trials are good) or randomness as mechanism to make salient pre-existing principles. I'm reminded of some online advice-purveyor who would often get emails from people asking if their generic advice applied to their specific situation; almost always, the answer was 'yes,' and there was something about the personal attention that was relevant; having it be the case that this particular bit of advice was selected for the situation you're in makes it feel worth considering in a way that "yeah, I guess I could throw this whole book of advice at my problem" doesn't.

comment by ryan_b · 2019-06-06T15:08:53.617Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I once did a thought experiment where I tried to figure out how divination practices might directly help decisions.

The Druids were legendarily learned. What information we have says they were responsible for maintaining the oral history of their people, and for management of sacrifices, and reading of omens and the weather. They were reputed to have advanced knowledge of plants and animals.

I wondered about divination before battle. Naturally, birds aren't really random - I expect a lot of people have noticed things like how they suddenly go quiet when a wet gust of wind blows through immediately prior to a storm. I expect if I were a Druid, I would have spent a lot of time watching birds, and know more things like this.

As a keeper of the oral history, I'll know the reported outcome of previous battles and some important details about them (the weather, say).

Things like how many warriors my tribe has I can see with my eyes, and whether the other guys have more or less can be had by scouting like usual.

There's also the matter of appeasing the gods, and offering them sacrifice. Now there's a story from Greek myth about how early on the gods were tricked into accepting the fatty, gristly parts of the animal as the best parts, on the grounds that the smoke from burning those was better able to reach Olympus and nourish them. This agrees with casual observation: when I ruin a steak on the grill it smokes a lot more than when I ruin chicken on the grill. Smoke is a pretty good indicator of things like wind direction and strength, and further when it rises it can do things like show you where the wind changes above your level (like in smokestacks where it suddenly gets sheared off at a certain height).

So bird behavior provides information about barometric pressure, and the smoke from a sacrifice provides information about the movement of air pretty high up, and the oral history provides a sort of prior for similar circumstances.

So, if I were a Druid and knew what Druids know, I could make better than average predictions about the outcome of a battle if I made a burnt offering and read omens from birds.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T17:18:23.534Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How does battle outcome relate to barometric pressure, and the movement of air pretty high up?

comment by ryan_b · 2019-06-06T18:04:42.924Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Weather. In a nutshell, bad weather makes battles harder. This is because walking a long way while wet sucks, it damages supplies and equipment, it increases the likelihood of disease, and there are intermittent dangers like flooding that are hard to predict in unfamiliar territory. In general, people know how to manage these things where they live, so the worse the weather, the bigger an advantage for the defender (or at least whoever marched less).

comment by Scott Garrabrant · 2019-06-06T02:22:56.552Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Nitpick: conservation of expected evidence does not seem to me like why you can’t do divination with a random number generator.

comment by Vaniver · 2019-06-08T19:30:41.436Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I mean, I think it would be more accurate to say something like "the die roll, as it's uncorrelated with features of the decision, doesn't give me any new information about which action is best," but the reason why I point to CoEE is because it is actually a valid introspective technique to imagine acting by coinflip or dieroll and then see if you're hoping for a particular result, which rhymes with the "if you can predictably update in direction X, then you should already be there."

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-06-06T08:39:14.487Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

23583450863409854 is not a perspective that helps me get a new view on a problem I'm considering.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T17:15:15.590Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

1. This post addressed that - pair your RNG with an advice table.

2. That's because you don't give meaning to "numbers". Try a random word/sentence/advice generator.

comment by Slider · 2019-06-06T13:06:39.440Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Sure 23583450863409854 might not refer to any abstract concept fro you.

But I would hold that 23583450863409854 is a valid target for numerology and I would not be surprised if a numerologist did connect that number to some abstract concepts.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-06-06T15:33:07.015Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You need the numerology to get your perspective. It's similar to the source of the 64 bits of entropy for the I Ching.

comment by Slider · 2019-06-07T00:38:02.378Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You need background education in general to understand a language. No statement is really free of auxillary hypotheses.

In the limit you don't need any external prompt to start activating concepts you have gathered or booting up your imagination. But for some psychologies they don't automatically try to match every theory they know against every percept they have but only apply concepts very selectively. Sometime you proposefully make that selectivity wider but it's hard to say which level of selectivity is appropriate. On the other end there is akrasia where you don't answer direct questions but only activate your brain when somebody punches you in the face. And in the other extreme being constantly paranoid about everything can burn a lot of energy and thinktime for little improvement.

comment by Slider · 2019-06-06T13:03:53.558Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you throw a dice and read the results it's reasonable to assume that it's a trial independent of the rest of universes happenings. Thus conditioning on the dice result should not shift any probabilities concerning the rest of the world. If I throw an additional dice it doesn't help determine what already thrown dice are. Your expectation doesn't shift so no probability can shift.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T17:16:39.371Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Someone rolls a die, and writes down the result. How do you guess what they rolled?

comment by Dagon · 2019-06-06T23:06:09.729Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One of the things I take from the post is that you don't have any new information about what they rolled, but you DO now have an indication that they had some reason to roll a die. If you know what kind of decisions they make based on die rolls, you know they're making such a decision.

For some things, that is a lot of information about the universe from the act of divination, not from the results of the act.

This is sort of the inverse of what the post is saying (that preparing for the act ensures that you consider the question with sufficient weight).

comment by Slider · 2019-06-06T19:18:08.564Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You can't. But for example if they say what they rolled and you assume there is a correlation what they actually get and what they would say then you have a chance to narrow it down. If you know it's not corrrelated to anything (ie is pure dice) you know it can' t be evidence.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T20:15:23.633Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You can guess. You can roll the die yourself (and guess that it came up the same way). You can also examine the die, and then guess.

If I throw an additional dice it doesn't help determine what already thrown dice are. Your expectation doesn't shift so no probability can shift.

Also, this contains some assumptions that aren't always correct. I can throw a die a bunch of times, and notice that it comes up "6" or "1" an awful lot an conclude it's weighted. (A shift in expectation.)

comment by Slider · 2019-06-07T00:19:56.037Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A guess would be equally good without dice throwing. Indeed if you have access to the dice that generated the result we want to know about you can infer distribution information. But if you have a different die and determine that it's weighted it doesn't tell whether the orignal die is weighted. If you knew the dice came from the same factory you could infer something. But you manufacturing a fresh dice is justified to assume to not be distributionally connected. If you have information that you know to correlate your manunfacturing process to be similar then that contains your information and the actual rolling of the die doesn't tell you anything.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T17:13:51.156Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Because it's output is a number, as opposed to information (in word form)? Or because there's not reason the (P)RNG would be correlated to the solution to the problem you wish to solve/what you want information about?

comment by Kenny · 2019-06-24T05:23:22.439Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is a great post!

I think I get some kind of similar benefit just by reading a lot and from lots of different sources but would you recommend something like what you described doing with the I Ching to others as a habitual practice they should adopt?

I wonder if variations on the same thing might be similarly helpful, e.g. a service that emails you a random essay or an app that pings you to remind you to read a random LW post.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-06-10T07:08:36.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For selecting from an array of useful frames, could the process be improved by using spaced repetition instead of random draw?

Perhaps, use a process that starts with a few crucual elemental frames and presents them in a cycle, then starts introducing new frames, and as you go the frequency of the older frames decreases. Never does it draw two very similar frames on consecutive sessions.

comment by lahwran · 2019-06-05T23:43:37.744Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

[deleted]

comment by Benquo · 2019-06-06T05:15:03.512Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As used in this comment, "outdated" and "woo" both seem to me like anticoncepts at first glance - can you say more about what you mean by them here? What specifically in this post constitutes an "appeal to woo," and what specifically about that is objectionable? Might be best to taboo the term for the explanation.

comment by Ruby · 2019-06-06T04:15:57.711Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Epistemic status: hastily written on mobile, not perfectly expressed

Woo things, like divination, are stereotypically rejected by rationalists and skeptics. This post is fascinating because it offers rational arguments in favor of practices decried as irrational. It's further fascinating that some past practitioners had awareness of both the surface poor justification and deeper seemingly good justification. It makes one update that maybe one doesn't understand as much as they think and that maybe the actions of others are more optimized than they first appear.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-06-06T07:20:10.059Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The actions of others being more optimized than one thinks is a generally good frame. There is an obvious objection that no, really, a lot of actions are un optimized serves as a curiosity stopper on considering which non conscious or non agentic process might have optimized what you're seeing.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-06T17:20:53.348Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The question is, does mixing up a deck of flash cards randomly help with memorizing them?

EDIT: I was actually serious, it's an empirical question.

comment by Vaniver · 2019-06-08T19:32:18.249Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would imagine so, because it means you learn the cards as opposed to the sequence of cards. ("In French, chateau always follows voiture.")