Steelmanning Divination

post by Vaniver · 2019-06-05T22:53:54.615Z · score: 141 (57 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 36 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.

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-07-07T09:22:51.980Z · score: 52 (17 votes) · LW · GW

This comment is going to seem unrelated or only tangentially related to the post, at first. I promise that it’s quite relevant, but explaining the relevance up-front would make the comment longer and more awkward.

Open up an old-school Dungeons & Dragons rule book (like this this one), and one thing you’ll find a whole lot of is random tables.

The idea was simple: your characters would encounter some situation; the Dungeon Master (DM) would roll some dice; then he’d consult a table, which would tell him what the outcome of the situation was, given the result of the die rolls.

Here’s a table for diseases (or disorders)[1]:

DISEASE (OR DISORDER) TABLE

If a player character contracted a disease, or developed a disorder (which, itself, would’ve been determined by some other die rolls), the DM would roll three dice: one (a d100) to determine the afflicted part of the body; one (a d8) for whether the affliction was acute or chronic; and a third (another d8) to determine severity. The table above indicated which values on each die corresponded to which outcome.

Here’s a table for determining whether a previously undiscovered fortress or castle is inhabited, and by whom (or by what!)[2]:

CASTLE TABLE II: INHABITANTS

Finally, here’s a table for determining what happens when two magical potions are mixed (or, when a character drinks them both)[3]:

POTION MISCIBILITY TABLE

Random tables fell out of favor, for a time.[4] But they’ve been making somewhat of a comeback (along with many other features of “old-school” D&D—the so-called “Old-School Renaissance”). One sees discussions of random tables, now and then, on blogs and web forums dedicated to tabletop role-playing games. Often, people put together their own random tables.

And—as with everything else—one sees arguments about them.

Arguments for: These usually involve the word ‘fun’. Randomness is fun, we are told, and surprises are fun; and a random table can inspire a Dungeon Master, and suggest possibilities.

Arguments against: Randomness, the critics say, does not make sense; and surprises are not fun. (Because—it is implied—they might be bad; or they are often bad; or they are usually bad.)

Both sides miss the point entirely. Very few people—even among those who love a good random table—understand the tables’ nature, and their purpose. Without understanding, when people today try to construct random tables for use in their D&D games, they often find that something is missing—some ineffable quality that makes these modern imitations of the work of Gygax fail to have quite the same satisfying and enriching effect on the game as did the random tables in the D&D rule books of old.

And that ‘something’ is that random tables are not about the mere fact of randomness.

Here is what random tables really are: they are representations of a probability distribution across a set of outcomes. As such, they encode two critical things: first, what outcomes are possible; second, those outcomes’ relative frequency.

And in consequence, here is something else that random tables are: they are models of the game world.

Look again at that first table I presented (with the diseases and disorders). A character is exposed to disease; the DM rolls d100[5]. On a roll of 1, 2, or 3, the character contracts an affliction of the blood; on a roll of 4, an illness of the bones; a roll of 5 signifies a nervous system disorder.

But another way to look at this, is that blood-related disorders are 3 times more likely—and thus 3 times more common—than bone-related disorders (at least, among adventurers!).

And the table has no entry for a disease of the lymphatic system. As a consequence, in this fictional world, no such illnesses exist (or, perhaps, they do not occur among the sorts of people that the player characters are).

Similarly, the second table (with the castles) tells us that among small-sized strongholds found in wilderness regions, 45% are deserted entirely, 15% are infested with monsters, and the remaining 40% are occupied by civilized folk.

When constructing, or choosing to use, a random table of outcomes, what you are doing is modeling the fictional world of the game. The relative frequency of the possible outcomes of the category of situation which is to be resolved by rolling on the table—and, no less importantly, which outcomes are present in the distribution at all, and which are not—are facts about that world.

Now consider two random tables, for the same situation—let us say, two versions of the disease & disorder table given above. The first is as presented, while the second has all the same rows, but the distribution is altered: on this latter table, only a single number each (out of 100, on the d100) will yield any result but ‘skin’—to which the remaining 85 out of 100 numbers are now allocated.

What are the consequences for using this latter table? Well, in a D&D game where the DM chooses to use it (in place of the original table), it is rare indeed for any character to fall ill with a disease of the respiratory system—but afflictions of the skin are terrifyingly commonplace. One hopes that the DM has a good explanation for this skew (perhaps the fictional world on which the action takes place lacks an ozone layer, resulting in a permanent epidemic of skin cancers); if not, the modeled world will fail to make much sense (one can only suspend disbelief so far, after all, and perhaps—even after we’ve accepted the existence of dragons and elves—being told that skin conditions are 85 times more common than the cold, the flu, bronchitis, and every other respiratory condition combined, is a bridge too far).

And, similarly, we may imagine yet another version of this same table—an expanded one, with many more rows than merely the 16 we see above (with the die roll result ranges—i.e., the probability mass—of the existing entries being compressed, to make room); and these additional rows are all mental or psychological disorders. In this setting, characters are just as much in danger of developing a debilitating phobia, or lapsing into psychosis, as developing a skin condition. This, too, will result in a very different game world—and a very different game—than the original table.

The point, in other words, is not simply the fact of using a random table. The point, rather, is: just what exactly is on that random table, and what is not on it; and what is the distribution of the listed things. Not all random tables are created equal; not all are equally ‘fun’. The details are everything.


And now consider the application of the same caveat—to random tables, not of outcomes in a game, but of outcomes of a method of divination.

Suppose that we accept the basic idea, that we wish to be prompted to take some perspective, or think along certain lines, chosen at random out of a pool of such. The question, however, is: what, specifically, is the set of perspectives or prompts from which we are selecting? What perspectives are on there? What will be the relative frequency of certain perspectives or prompts, if you draw from this distribution repeatedly? And what is not in there?

We may imagine, for instance, two versions of the same divinatory device. In both versions, you draw a card from a shuffled 52-card deck, then consult a booklet of prompts, where each card corresponds to one entry. But the booklets are different; they were written (and the sets of prompts compiled) by people with very different philosophies (a Buddhist and a Randian, perhaps; or a Christian and a Communist).

Would not your choice of which version of this device to use for your divinations, affect the long-term outcome of using it? Might not your actions be nudged in one direction, or another—systematically? Might there not be some prominent gaps, in one or both of the distributions—perspectives which are simply absent from the set of possible prompts? What would be the consequence of such a lack?

Generators of random outcomes can be extremely efficient ways to model complex systems, by abstracting away the details of causal interactions. But be careful that the outcome distribution of the generator is one which you actually endorse.


  1. Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 14. ↩︎

  2. Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 182. ↩︎

  3. Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition; p. 119. ↩︎

  4. The popular sentiment, you see, was that things should happen for a reason, because the DM decided they should happen, rather than being quite so… random. Or, of course, perhaps the game’s publishers merely wanted to economize by reducing the rule books’ page count. ↩︎

  5. That is, the DM generates an integer between 1 and 100 (inclusive), with the distribution across the possible values being uniform. ↩︎

comment by Raemon · 2019-07-07T20:22:27.707Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I quite liked this. I'm not 100% sure how to apply it – I think I roughly agree with your final claim, and don't think it's reasonable to expect a fleshed out answer of how different real divination practices varied in usefulness. But I'm curious about some made-up-but-plausible examples you can imagine that would result in different outcomes, esp. factoring in something of the "what worldmodel is being communicated" bit.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2019-07-08T20:35:29.068Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can think of a few further purely speculative inferences. Clearly, somebody created the divination systems used in various cultures throughout the world. The Xunxi quote gives reason to believe that for some members of at least some cultures, systems of ritual, perhaps including divination, were perceived as something like a useful technology. With perhaps daily use by a number of practitioners, possibly engaging in ongoing intergenerational discussions about the efficacy of their divination system, it might have been subject to many optimizing tweaks.

The I Ching does appear to have different versions. From Wikipedia: "Various modern scholars suggest dates ranging between the 10th and 4th centuries BC for the assembly of the text in approximately its current form" (emphasis mine). It seems to me that anyone telling fortunes for a regular clientele will stay in business longer if their advice offers at least the appearance of utility. Royalty might have been more educated and more sophisticated consumers of divination; perhaps they knew exactly what they were buying. After all, if it's possible for divination to offer both the mere appearance of utility and the real thing, all else being equal we'd expect the latter to drive the former out of the market.

When I synthesize the posts of Vaniver and Said Achmiz, it seems to suggest that divination is useful both when random and when the answers have an optimal wording and frequency distribution.

Given that different societies will feature very different pressures and power structures, it seems unlikely to me that a system of divination optimized for one culture (or segment of that culture, such as royalty) will necessarily translate with perfect fidelity to other contexts. It may not even optimize the conscious goals of the individuals using it, or the survival of their societies as a whole.

I can think of two ways divination systems might be retained. One is through conquest. If they promote that activity successfully, it might lead to the spread of the divination system. Another is through promotion of individual flourishing. If a divination system helps people achieve their aims, they might continue to use it, teach it to their children, promote it among their friends, and be imitated by their enemies.

I'd expect a system that does both to be most successful, and my mind immediately jumps to the dual nature of many religions, which are by turns warlike and peaceful. Though the "doves" and "hawks" of each culture or religion often seem to despise each other, they may very well work synergistically to promote the spread of their shared culture. The "hawks" promote an attitude of conquest and hardline defensiveness, while the "doves" promote the benefits of a focus on peaceful individual flourishing. Both can be useful propaganda tools both within their own borders and to outsiders. In order to be convincing to others, they need to be utterly convinced themselves that they are rigid hawks or committed doves. A savvy leader would known how to make use of both.

This is getting a bit away from divination at this point, so I'll leave it there. I do think that any account of the utility of a divination practice (or other cultural practice) needs to explain for whom it provides utility and the mechanism by which it does so. That's the reason for digressing into my "hawks and doves are best friends" theory. My guess is that even when a religion doesn't have an obvious divinatory practice, that it has other ways of accomplishing something similar.

I'm less familiar with Island and Judaism, but in Christianity, it seems to me that sermons, rotating selections of the Bible chosen for study, prayer, and calls to take these words and rituals to heart in ways that are personally meaningful for the congregation are somewhat "random" - or at least out of the hands of the congregation unless they're willing to change churches - and optimized, as judged by the size and growth of the congregation, or the success of cultures that and their varied practices.

It would be interesting to speculate on how much the physical form of the randomization practice or any reference text/image plays in the efficacy of these practices. Can yarrow sticks be replaced with a random number generator, if we're aware that's all that's happening? Or would that make it less effective? Perhaps there is some aspect of human neurology that makes divination done with certain physical implements more compelling than that done with others.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-06-06T19:27:51.860Z · score: 25 (10 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: 21 (11 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: 13 (9 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 Yuxi_Liu · 2019-07-13T12:00:30.665Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant quotes:

Original text is from Discourse on Heaven of Xunzi:

雩而雨,何也?曰:無佗也,猶不雩而雨也。日月食而救之,天旱而雩,卜筮然後決大事,非以為得求也,以文之也。故君子以為文,而百姓以為神。以為文則吉,以為神則凶也。

The Britannica says:

Another celebrated essay is “A Discussion of Heaven,” in which he attacks superstitious and supernatural beliefs. One of the work’s main themes is that unusual natural phenomena (eclipses, etc.) are no less natural for their irregularity—hence are not evil omens—and therefore men should not be concerned at their occurrence. Xunzi’s denial of supernaturalism led him into a sophisticated interpretation of popular religious observances and superstitions. He asserted that these were merely poetic fictions, useful for the common people because they provided an orderly outlet for human emotions, but not to be taken as true by educated men. There Xunzi inaugurated a rationalistic trend in Confucianism that has been congenial to scientific thinking.

Stanford Encyclopedia

Heaven never intercedes directly in human affairs, but human affairs are certain to succeed or fail according to a timeless pattern that Heaven determined before human beings existed...

Thus rituals are not merely received practices or convenient social institutions; they are practicable forms in which the sages aimed to encapsulate the fundamental patterns of the universe. No human being, not even a sage, can know Heaven, but we can know Heaven’s Way, which is the surest path to a flourishing and blessed life. Because human beings have limited knowledge and abilities, it is difficult for us to attain this deep understanding, and therefore the sages handed down the rituals to help us follow in their footsteps.

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: 2 (2 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: 10 (8 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: 7 (6 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: 5 (3 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 habryka (habryka4) · 2019-07-06T18:34:01.991Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Promoted to curated: This is probably the post on LW I referenced most often in the last few months while a lot of the discussion of cultural rationality was going on.

I think there is a lot of value in reading and learning from the best writings throughout all of history, both because they usually tend to have good ideas, and also because it gives a much stronger grounded sense of history. I think there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in analyzing a bunch of historical classics through a rationality lense.

comment by Peter Hroššo (peter-hrosso) · 2019-09-04T15:10:11.782Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Could the phenomenon described in the post explain why people find psychedelics useful for self-development?

There is the random perturbation - seeing music, hearing thoughts, ...

The authority of an old sage performing divinations is replaced in psychedelics with direct experience of the perturbation. And the perturbation is amplified by the feeling of detachedness from one-self, people often have on a trip.

I don't have any experience with psychedelics, though, so I'm just theorizing.

comment by Aleksi Liimatainen (aleksi-liimatainen) · 2019-09-04T17:52:38.475Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

According to the REBUS and the Anarchic Brain model, the self-developmental benefits of psychedelics would be due to a temporary relaxation of the hierarchical information processing of the brain.

Normally our top-down processes suppress very low-prior bottom-up signals as noise. Psychedelics selectively inhibit the top-down network, allowing anomalous bottom-up signals to propagate. If a lot of anomalies had been suppressed by strongly-held high-level beliefs, this can cause large updates.

Note that these updates are not necessarily correct and the new beliefs can also become sticky, so I wouldn't recommend untutored experimentation.

comment by nafal · 2019-07-12T18:29:59.636Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.cgpgrey.com/blog/cyclops

Something similar to this? With the root notion of the action, weather it be divination or a walk in the woods being to detach yourself from your own mind and force yourself to reflect?

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: -7 (7 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.")