[Lecture Club] Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

post by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:22:22.626Z · LW · GW · 185 comments

John Vervaeke has a lecture series on YouTube called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. I thought it was great, so I'm arranging a lecture club to discuss it here on Less Wrong. The format is simple: each weekday I post a comment that's a link to the next lecture and the summary (which I plan on stealing from the recap at the beginning of the next lecture), and then sometimes comment beneath it with my own thoughts. If you're coming late (even years late!) feel free to join in, and go at whatever pace works for you.

(Who is John Vervaeke? He's a lecturer in cognitive science at the University of Toronto. I hadn't heard of him before the series, which came highly recommended to me.)

I split the lecture series into three parts: the philosophical, religious, and cultural history of humankind (25 episodes) related to meaning, the cognitive science of wisdom and meaning (20 episodes), and more recent philosophy related to the meaning crisis specifically (5 episodes). Each episode is about an hour at regular speed (but I think they're understandable at 2x speed). I am not yet aware of a good text version of the lectures; I also have some suspicion that some important content is not in the text itself, and so even if I transcribed them (or paid someone to) it'd still be worth watching or listening to it. 

I think the subject matter is 1) very convergent with the sort of rationality people are interested in on LW, and 2) relevant to AI alignment, especially thinking about embedded agency [? · GW].


  1. Introduction [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  2. Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  3. Conscious Cosmos and Modern Grammar [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  4. Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  5. Plato and the Cave [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  6. Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  7. Aristotle's World View and Erich Fromm [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  8. The Buddha and "Mindfulness" [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  9. Insight [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  10. Consciousness [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  11. Higher States of Consciousness, Part 1 [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  12. Higher States of Consciousness, Part 2 [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  13. Buddhism and Parasitic Processing [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  14. Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  15. Marcus Aurelius and Jesus [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  16. Christianity and Agape [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  17. Gnosis and Existential Inertia [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  18. Plotinus and Neoplatonism [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  19. Augustine and Aquinas [LW · GW]
  20. Death of the Universe [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  21. Martin Luther and Descartes [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  22. Descartes vs. Hobbes [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  23. Romanticism [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  24. Hegel [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  25. The Clash [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  26. Cognitive Science [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  27. Problem Formulation [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  28. Convergence to Relevance Realization [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  29. Getting to the Depths of Relevance Realization [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  30. Relevance Realization Meets Dynamical Systems Theory [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  31. Embodied-Embedded RR as Dynamical-Developmental GI [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  32. RR in the Brain, Insight, and Consciousness [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  33. The Spirituality of RR: Wonder/Awe/Mystery/Sacredness [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  34. Sacredness, Horror, Music, and the Symbol [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  35. The Symbol, Sacredness, and the Sacred [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  36. Religio/Perennial Problems/Reverse Engineering Enlightenment [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  37. Reverse Engineering Enlightenment: Part 2 [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  38. Agape and 4E Cognitive Science [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  39. The Religion of No Religion [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  40. Wisdom and Religion [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  41. What is Rationality? [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  42. Intelligence, Rationality, and Wisdom [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  43. Wisdom and Virtue [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  44. Theories of Wisdom [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  45. The Nature of Wisdom [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  46. Conclusion and the Prophets of the Meaning Crisis [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  47. Heidegger [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  48. Corbin and the Divine Double [LW(p) · GW(p)]
  49. Corbin and Jung [LW(p) · GW(p)]


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-17T05:08:03.591Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 50: Tillich and Barfield

Then I pointed to somebody whose work, also deriving from Heidegger, integrates aspects of all of these together in kind of a profound way. Tillich is deeply influenced and aware of what he calls 'depth psychology', the kind of psychology in Jung, he of course is deeply aware of Heidegger. I don't think that Tillich was aware of Corbin, but he is deeply aware of the symbol in an imaginal instead of a merely imaginary way.

Tillich takes the meaning crisis seriously, he writes perhaps his most well-known (and I think it's a masterpiece) book, The Courage to Be, as a response to the meaning crisis. Like Jung and Corbin, and for very related reasons, he's deeply critical of literalism and fundamentalism throughout, but he takes it deeper. As I mentioned, he really deepens it in terms of Heidegger's critique of ontotheology and he comes critical of literalism and fundamentalism as forms of idolatry in which we are attempting to have rather than become.

So there's some excellent books on the relationship between Jung and Tillich, a series of ongoing work by John Dourley; I recommend two books to you, The Psyche as Sacrament which I tweeted about in my book recommendations, I would also recommend his later book, Paul Tillich, Carl Jung, and the Recovery of Religion, but make no mistake, Dourley is not talking about a recovery in a nostalgic sense. He writes another book called A Strategy for a Loss of Faith where he is trying to get beyond classical theism. So I recommend Dourley's work as a comprehensive way of bringing about a deep dialog and a kind of integration between Jung and Tillich.

Tillich sees the main response to the meaning crisis, and here's how Tillich is not just theorizing: he is trying to give us guidance on how to live. Let's remember that this really matters, because you know, the way Tillich resisted the Nazis. What Tillich talks about in The Courage to Be is *courage*, now he's careful to note that this is a kind of existential courage that ultimately allows us to confront and overcome meaninglessness in its depth, but also to more practically respond to perverted response to the meaning crisis itself, like Nazism and its gnostic nightmare.

This process of encouragement--now, he is like Aristotle, he's not talking about something as simple as just bravery (facing danger) or fortitude (the ability to endure), no, for Tillich courage is a virture. There's something of wisdom in courage. Courage involves within it that central feature of wisdom, which is seeing through illusion into reality. The brave person face danger, but that's all we can say about them. The person with fortitude endures difficulty, but that's all we can say about them. The courageous person sees through the illusion and the distortion of fear or distress to what is truly good and acts accordingly.

Replies from: CraigMichael
comment by CraigMichael · 2021-07-28T05:12:53.445Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sad I missed this in March. Have heard some Vervaeke on Curt Jaimungal's channel.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-16T16:03:53.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 7: Aristotle's World View and Erich Fromm

So last time we took a look at the second half of Aristotle and his further developments of the Axial Age's understanding of meaning and wisdom. We took a look more at the world side of things and we took a look at his worldview, with two components: his conformity theory, which is an important alternative understanding of knowledge--it's a contact epistemology, an intimate knowing and being with something--and how plausible that contact epistemology actually is, and then we also looked at a plausible (turned out to be false, but a plausible) model of the world that is very consonant and consistent with that conformity theory: this is a geocentric world that is moved by natural motion. It's a cosmos.

Then we use that to discuss how the theory of the world and the theory of how we know the world and be within the world are intimately connected and mutually supporting, and you get worldview attunement, and how that creates existential modes in which we are co-identifying the agent and the arena and creating the meta-meaning, the relationship that makes all individual acts and events and situations and places meaningful for us, and how important that consonance is between our existential mode and our intellectual understanding. Aristotle is so prominent because of his capacity to create a worldview that lasts for a millennium, and because it's so well-attuned a worldview.

We then paused from our discussion of the Axial Age in Greece and we moved to the Axial Age in India for the explicit purpose of trying to discuss the impact of the Mindfulness Revolution. Part of the thesis of the series is the mindfulness revolution is in response to the meaning crisis in the West and growing confluence between Buddhism and cognitive science is an attempt to address and provide solutions to the meaning crisis in the West. We started by looking at the figure who epitomizes the Axial Revolution within ancient India and that's Siddhartha Gautama. We began by looking at his myth--his mythological biography if you want to put it that way--and I remind you again how I am using the world 'myth'.

We began by taking a look at his early life within the palace. We stepped aside and examined the palace as a mythological representation of a particular existential mode. We talked about two different existential modes, following the work of Fromm; it's also convergent of work from Buber, and other important thinkers (Stephen Batchelor is going to make use of this distinction, etc.).

Fromm talks about two modes:

  1. The having mode that's organized around meeting our 'having needs' in which we perceive the world categorically. We want to manipulate it and solve our problems and control it. 
  2. The being mode which is organized around our 'being needs'. These are needs that are met by becoming something: mature, virtuous, love.

We then talked about the possibility of modal confusion: being locked in the having mode in trying to meet your being needs within the having mode. So trying to meet your need for maturity by having a car, or meeting your need for being in love by having lots of sex. We talked about the fact that you can become enmeshed in modal confusion and how that becomes a vicious cycle because as your being needs are frustrated you pursue evermore the misframed projects that the modal confusion is giving you. You try more to have things as opposed to more and more become what you need to become.

Then I suggested to you that being in the palace is a mythological representation of this kind of modal confusion in which we are stuck in the having mode and of course this also had one important cultural point--I did say at the beginning we would talk about about that--we would develop a way of talking about the connection between the meaning crisis and other crises we are facing, so issues about a market economy and a commodification of everything and everyone by inducing modal confusion it is possible to sell you more. As your identity becomes more and more a political and economic thing and commodity that should be categorically understood and manipulated, the more and more I can sell you things and sell you ideas and manipulate you accordingly. So this has important ramifications for us now. That's why it's a myth; because it has important ramifications for us right now.

Replies from: Vaniver, Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-16T16:54:40.591Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The agent-arena relationship is, in my view, one of the core concepts in the course. My version is that you perceive yourself as an 'agent', able to 'take actions' (often according to some script) in a way that is matched up to perceiving your environment as 'an arena' that 'presents affordances'. Much of familiarizing yourself with a new place or culture or job or so on is learning how to properly understand the agent-arena relationship ("oh, when I want this done, I go over there and push those buttons"). The CFAR taste/shaping class [LW · GW] is, I think, about deliberately seeing this happen in your mind. Importantly, basically all actions will ground their meaning in this agent-arena relationship.


One of the things that I think is behind a lot of 'modern alienation' is that the arenas are so narrow, detached, and voluntary, in contrast to the arenas perceived by a hunter-gatherer tribesman.

Why is 'voluntary' alienating? For example, suppose I'm in a soccer league; I have some role to play, and some satisfaction in how well I play that role, and so on, but at the root of the satisfaction I get from the soccer league is that I chose to participate. There's not really 'something bigger than me' there; I could have decided to be in a frisbee league instead, or play Minecraft, or watch Netflix, or so on and so on. Around me are other people making their own choices, which will generally only line up with my by accident or selection effect. ["Huh, everyone at the soccer league is interested in soccer, and none of my non-league friends are into soccer."]

The Dragon Army experiment was a study in contrasts, here; 11 people were in the house, and attendance at the mandatory events was generally 11, and attendance at voluntary events was generally 2 or 3. Even among people who had self-selected to live together, overlap in interests was only rarely precise enough that it was better to do something together than doing a more narrowly matched thing alone. But this makes it harder to build deep meaning out of a narrow voluntary arena, when it's a nearly random choice selected from a massive list of options.

[See also the Gervais Principle, in particular the bit where the Losers value diversity because it allows everyone to be above-average in a way that is only meaningful to them. Shared meaning means conflict over a single ranking, instead of peace between many different rankings. But that's also how you get Lotus [LW · GW]!]

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-16T17:29:32.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, i think you hit the nail with your point on voluntary. The thing i hear most often from people who experience a meaning crisis is "Why" - "Why this specifically? Why this and not this other thing? What's the purpose?". This also relates to me to Choices are Bad [LW · GW]. If you have lots of options it's much harder to answer this nagging "Why" question. When the possibility space is large you need much more powerful principles to locate the right choice (This also relates to relevance realization). 

The process that produces that question about meaning might start out with simply trying to decide what to do, notice the option space is so large that it needs better principles to successfully locate something, then start asking questions about purpose and meaning. The distress is an inability to locate relevance.

My brother used to say that whenever someone started to talk with him about "the meaning of life" he wants to just go to them, give them a really good massage, and ask if the question still bothers them. It of course doesn't answer or diffuse the question, but it has a point. When they're getting a massage it's fairly clear what the right thing to do is, try to focus on the massage and don't worry about other stuff. It gives them peace from mind.

And I was once able to answer someone that question well enough that it seemed it actually gave her enough clarity and understanding to be peaceful and satisfied. In jargon, my answer gave her the tools to better find what's relevant (At least if I'm not too optimistic in my interpretation of her response, she also had it pretty easy compared to others who have meaning crises).

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-16T18:30:39.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually answered her in text, so i can share what I wrote (translated from Hebrew). It's mostly based on ideas from the sequences, and it was before I heard of Vervaeke (I think before these lectures even came out).

So, similarly to the quote i showed you[1] - If there's no meaning and nothing is wrong, then there's nothing bad in believing there there's meaning and that there are things which are right.
So you don't need a very strong justification to make basic assumptions about morality, like (in general) "Joy is preferable to suffering" or "Life is preferable to death".
But why would you choose these assumptions (or similar)? Why not the opposite? What method can you use to arrive at this assumptions?
We cannot decouple what is "moral" or "valuable" to us from our humanity. There isn't an ultimate moral argument that will convince every intelligent being what is right and what is wrong. And we don't have a choice but to use our brain to think about morality. It's true that at the end of the day the reason we prefer joy and pleasure to sadness and pain, that we value love and beauty (and that these things even exist) is the result of a random process of natural selection, and not because these things have inherent value. but if we refuse to take into account what evolution is responsible for, we'll have to refuse to even use our brain. We can't choose to be a "Philosophy student of perfect emptiness" that supposedly comes from a completely neutral starting point to examine every argument. A student of perfect emptiness is a stone. There's a nothing we could say to a stone that would move it.
So the preferences of humans are valid arguments for what is valuable. There's importance to the fact that if a hot iron is pressed to your body you would prefer it not to be. To the fact you you prefer a sweet apple to a soar one. That you enjoy seeing people have fun. That you suffer from seeing people suffer. You are justified in building base assumptions based on these things.

[1] It was this quote from Eric Weinstein: “Don’t be afraid to fool yourself into thinking that life is meaningful and that, against all odds, *you* have an important part to play in the world. If it’s all meaningless you‘ll have done no harm lying to yourself. And if by some chance this matters, you will waste less time.” The principle I distilled from it is that The existence of meaning precedes the importance of truth (I'll be happy to discuss that one).

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-16T16:31:54.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note the possibility of the other sort of modal confusion: trying to meet your having needs through the being mode. ("I am dry on the inside.")

I think Vervaeke's position is that this isn't much of a problem. That is, the higher levels of development also contain the lower levels of development, and so can see and properly situate the having needs and being needs. If you need to eat to not be hungry, and you need to be a good parent, you might go hungry so that your child has enough to eat, or you might not, depending on your best judgment of the situation. If you need to not have drunk hemlock in order to live, and you need to be true to your principles, you might drink hemlock or you might not, depending on your best judgment of the situation.

[I've been reading through The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich, which comes up near the end of the lecture series, and the relevant part of his take on religion is that the most important bit is draining the fear of death to make possible regular life (which is everywhere colored by the presence of death). If death is actually infinitely bad, then it doesn't make sense to get into a car, but how can you live a meaningful life without activities like getting in a car that bear some risk of death?]

But it is still a problem sometimes / you do actually have to use judgment to balance them. A friend of mine, early in the pandemic, was trying to get her community to prepare, and her community responded with something like "you seem like you're acting out of fear in a way that seems unhealthy," which I would now characterize as thinking my friend was "focusing on the having-need of safety" instead of "focusing on the being-need of detachment", or something. I don't know the full details, but as I understand it they didn't take sufficient precautions and then COVID spread through the community. (COVID is, of course, in that weird middle zone where this might actually have been fine in retrospect, as I don't think they had any deaths or long COVID, but I don't think the reasons they didn't prepare were sufficiently sensitive to how bad COVID was.)

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-16T17:10:21.950Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The modal confusion seems like one of the useful models/concepts Vervaeke shares. I admit I kind of forgot it, but it seemed useful when I first watched the lecture, and it seems useful again now (A large part of why i forgot it could be because i pretty much binged the lectures).

Anyway, your observation is good:

Note the possibility of the other sort of modal confusion: trying to meet your having needs through the being mode.

This sounds like what the buddhists did. Instead of trying to fulfill your having desires, become someone who doesn't desire them (being mode).

This can be both beneficial and harmful. Minimalism is an example where it's beneficial. You recognize you are being pumped with having needs/desires that can be relinquished, so you become someone who is satisfied with less.

It could be harmful when the having need isn't a need that should be relinquished, or you become something you shouldn't. For example, you have a need for companionship, but for some reason it's difficult for you to get, so you tell yourself that the other sex is awful and you shouldn't get involved with them. There probably are fine ways to make relinquish that need (monks do that and they seem fine), but when it doesn't work like in this example we call that denying your needs, and it makes you miserable.

Your having needs stem from what you are, so it makes sense it would be possible to solve them through transforming yourself, but not so much the other way around (or at all?). I need food because I am human, I can solve that either by getting food or becoming something that doesn't need food (fact check: Can't. Growth mindset: Yet). But not every change is an improvement, so attempts to become something different can harm you.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, Spiracular
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-03-16T19:34:01.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds like what the buddhists did.

What some Buddhists did. :-) While there are branches of Buddhism that take renunciation as the primary goal, there are also those who just consider it one tool among others (e.g.).

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-16T19:58:48.519Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, thanks for adding precision to that statement :) I only have a small familiarity with Buddhism.

comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-16T18:16:46.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do know at least 1 person (...maybe 2, from another "bad childhood" case) who completely lost touch with their ability to detect their own hunger, and had to rely on social conventions to remember to eat.

(This person's childhood was awful. I think they had been stuck in a lot of situations where they couldn't satisfy their need for food through the "having" frame. While it might be impossible to not need food, it is possible for someone to adjust to not want or think about food much.)

This person was otherwise incredibly well-adjusted*, but the "no sense of hunger" thing stuck.

Do not recommend, btw. It seems to be something that is very hard to unlearn, once acquired. In the absence of other people, "timers" or "actual wooziness" were the shitty secondary indicators these people came to rely on.

* This one was well-adjusted compared to most people, period.**

** Given what he went through, this struck me as an unusual (but pleasant!) surprise. This person's life was far more difficult than most. But he seemed to be able to view a lot of his tragedies as statistics, and he still found it worth living. Had an incredible knack for making found-family, which probably helped.

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-16T18:34:06.430Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Damm... That sounds terrible. Maybe that's how it's possible to die of hunger playing video games? I was always confused when I heard these stories, as I can't imagine a game being so addicting that i don't notice I'm hungry (Other option is these stories are somehow exaggerated / not real, I haven't looked into it).

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-16T22:33:29.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I did one meal a day intermittent fasting for sufficiently long (4 months, maybe?), I mostly lost my non-physiological sense of hunger (i.e. I wouldn't notice that I hadn't eaten in 30 hours or w/e until I was like "huh, my blood sugar is low"). I think I currently have a weak sense of hunger, which is more frequently lonely mouth than "I forgot to eat" or w/e.

My experience of it is mostly positive? Like, I don't have much trouble eating lunch every day, and have habituated to eating enough at once to sustain me for a day. [People are often surprised the first time they see me with four mealsquares for a meal :P]

Replies from: Spiracular
comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-18T23:51:06.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On a little further thought: "weaker sense of hunger" could be fine or beneficial for some people, and negative for others.

But some people don't seem to be able to undo this change, after doing it. So my advice around it defaults to cautionary, largely for that reason. It's hard to adjust something intelligently after-the-fact, when you can only move a knob easily in 1 direction. (And from my tiny sliver of anecdatums, I think this might be true for at least 1 of the mental-reconfigurations some people can do in this space.)

P.S. "Lonely mouth" is a VASTLY better term (and framing) than "oral fixation." Why the hell did Western Culture* let Freud do this sort of thing to the joint-metaphor-space?

* Do we have a canonical term for "the anthro for decentralized language canon" yet?**

** I get the feeling that a fun (and incredibly-stupid) anthropomorphizing metaphor could easily exist here. New words as offerings, that can be accepted or rejected by facets of Memesis. Descriptivist linguists as the mad prophets of a broken God. Prescriptivists and conlang-users as her ex-paladins or reformers, fallen to the temptations of lawfulness and cursed with his displeasure. An incomplete reification for "Language as They Are," in contrast to the platonic construct of an "Orderly Language that Could Be."

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-09T16:34:52.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 2: Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution

Last time we were talking about what was going on in shamanism and the Upper Paleolithic transition. We talked a lot about the flow experience and how it integrates altered states of consciousness, on a continuum with mystical experiences and meaning making, enhanced insight and intuition, and how this resulted in an enhanced capacity for metaphorical cognition which greatly expands human cognition, makes it much more creative, much more capable of generating all of those fantastic connection in meaning that drove the Upper Paleolithic transition's explosion in culture and technology. 

Then we moved to consider some other intervening revolutions that also had an impact. We briefly talked about the Neolithic revolution and the beginning of agriculture and then the rise of civilizations. We got into the Bronze Age civilization and then that led us into the revolution we're concentrating on now, which is the Axial Revolution, a period around between 800 BCE and 300 BCE following the Bronze Age Collapse.

The Bronze Age Collapse was one of the greatest if not the greatest collapse in civilization the world has ever seen. That facilitated much more experimentation in smaller scale societies and that experimentation resulted in the creation of new psychotechnologies. One was alphabetic literacy happening in the area of Canaan, and it's eventually going to be taken up very quickly by the Hebrews and then taken up by the Phoenicians and taken to the Greeks.

The Greeks further improved it; we talked about how that psychotechnology, alphabetic literacy, makes literacy more effective, more efficiently learned, more powerful. Its operation greatly expands the number of people that can be literate, enhances the distributed cognition and how that psychotechnology gets internalized into our metacognition and produces second-order thought. We get an enhanced awareness of our own cognition, both its power and its peril. We get an enhanced awareness of its capacity for self-correction and self-transcendence. We also get an enhanced awareness of its capacity for self-deception.

We talked about the invention of coinage to help deal with the mobile armies of this time and how that trains you in abstract symbolic thought and more rigorous mathematical reasoning and that also gets internalized. It gets exapted right into second order thinking and people start to become aware of themselves in a different way. They start to become much more aware of the meaning-making nature of their cognition, its capacity to generate illusion and self-deception and also its capacity to break out of illusion and self-deception and to come into contact with a more real world.

This leads to some fundamental changes; people start to become more aware of their responsibility for the violence and the chaos and the suffering in their own lives and they start to become aware of how much the transformation of mind and heart (in the Axial age, often referred to in a singular manner) is the way to alleviate suffering. 

Replies from: Vaniver, cata, Spiracular
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-09T16:51:15.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the things I really like about this series is the way in which cognition is viewed as this double-edged sword, where it is specifically the things that make it good that also make it bad. The ability to quickly reach conclusions is both what makes intelligence useful--you need less sensory data / less time to decide things--and what makes it problematic--you jump to incorrect conclusions more quickly as well. This is, of course, also my view on AI alignment: the problem is not that people build robots and then foolishly decide to put guns on the robots. The problem is that we only know how to make the first-order cognition, where we know how to make optimizers that search across a wide possibility space for things that maximize some score, with no attention on whether or not they have the right score function. So the robots we build now are very susceptible to illusion and self-deception.

This also feels very tied to the spirit behind Less Wrong: intelligence and rationality are distinct things, where rationality is mostly focusing on the ways in which you personally are subject to illusion and self-deception, and need to rearrange your thinking such that your intelligence is helping you instead of an obstacle.

comment by cata · 2021-03-12T06:00:29.545Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't understand the connection he was drawing between causal modelling and flow.

  • It sounded like he was really down on learning mere correlations, but in nature knowing correlations seems pretty good for being able to make predictions about the world. If you know that purple berries are more likely to be poisonous than red berries, you can start extracting value without needing to understand what the causal connection between being purple and being poisonous is.
  • I didn't understand why he thought his conditions for flow (clear information, quick feedback, errors matter) were specifically conducive to making causal models, or distinguishing correlation from causation. Did anyone understand this? He didn't elaborate at all.
Replies from: Vaniver, Slider
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T17:20:29.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounded like he was really down on learning mere correlations, but in nature knowing correlations seems pretty good for being able to make predictions about the world.

This also shows up in Pearl [LW · GW]; I think humans are in a weird situation where they have very simple intuitive machinery for thinking about causation, and very simple formal machinery for thinking about correlation, and so the constant struggle when talking about them is keeping the two distinct.

Like, there's a correlation between purple berries and feeling ill, and there's also a correlation between vomiting and feeling ill. Intuitive causal reasoning is the thing that makes you think about "berries -> illness" instead of "vomiting <-> illness".

Did anyone understand this? He didn't elaborate at all.

Try flipping each of the conditions.

Information that is obscure or noisy instead of clear makes it harder to determine causes, because the similarities and differences between things are obscured. If the berries are black and white, it's very easy to notice relationships; if the berries are #f5429e and #f54242, you might misclassify a bunch of the berries, polluting your dataset.

Feedback that's slow means you can't easily confirm or disconfirm hypotheses. If eating one black berry makes you immediately ill, then once you come across that hypothesis you can do a few simple checks. If eating one black berry makes you ill 8-48 hours later, then it'll be hard to tell whether it was the black berry or something else you ate over that window. If you ate a dozen different things, you now have to run a dozen different (long!) experiments.

If errors are irrelevant, then you're just going to ignore the information and not end up making any models related to it. The more relevant the errors are, the more of your mental energy you can recruit to modeling the situation.

Why those three, and not others? Idk, this is probably just directed sourced from the literature on flow, where they likely have experiments that look into varying these different conditions and trying out others.

comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T16:59:59.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking that there were groudns to think that flow is an experience of lots of implicit learing but I was much more lost on why flow would be conductive to more. Like if I have a proof streak then there is going to be more fodder for more and more proofs but most of that is going to be irrelevant calculation and dead-ends that don't lead to theorems. And there is no guarantee of success. At some point what is getting and enabling me the results is going to run out. Success doesn't by itself generate success.

comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-13T08:32:53.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assyrian Armies of the Axial-Age: Alphabetical, Arithmetic, and Affluent.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-29T16:49:39.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 16: Christianity and Agape

Last time we something somewhat pretentious, I hope it was still valuable. We endeavored to discuss the contributions to the notions of meaning and wisdom that were made by the advent of Christianity. In particular we looked at Jesus of Nazareth and the exemplification of this participatory knowing in God's agapic creativity, this forgiving of personhood to others.

John's radical idea that God is in fact this agape that is actually what we've always been talking about when we didn't go talking about God, and then Paul's radical personalization of this and how the metanoia of his own transformation is seen by him as a powerful instance of this gnosis agape, but how that also carried with it a potential dark side in which elements of his identity get projected onto cosmic history and the idea of inner conflict within history / within God as being reflected of and reflected in his own inner conflict between the old Saul and the new Paul, and how much this gnosis / participatory knowing is bound up with an exploration and an understanding of how our agency can be fractured, how we can be at war with ourselves, how we can suffer.

Replies from: Vaniver, Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-30T16:49:00.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A story people sometimes tell is a Garden of Eden sort of story: things were good, then somebody fucked it up, and now things are bad. Who fucked it up and how varies--was it Eve eating the apple, capitalism unleashing human greed, agriculture forcing toil?--but the basic attitude is one of resentment / debt. We have to struggle now to get back to where we 'should' be, if that's even possible.

This has basically not been my sense of the world or of history. To me, it seems much more like "first there was nothing, then there was something and it sucked, and then it sucked a little less, over and over until now." I am way wealthier than fictional Adam was, and even more so if you consider the actual historical Adam. When it sucked less, it's normally because of something else fixing it, and giving the fix to you. The basic attitude is something like grateful inheritance. 

Like, in a basic physical sense, there was a time before the sun existed, and now it exists, and basically all the material components of my life only exist in the form they do because of stars that existed in the past. In a social sense, I'm living in buildings that I didn't build, using a language that I didn't make, using tools that I didn't invent, under a political system that I didn't put into place. "Somebody else built that."

And it's not just that I found some abandoned ruins, or whatever; the people who built this wealth (often) wanted me to have it. Some of it I've exchanged for, but the vast majority of 'my wealth' is inherited. If there's a principle behind this sort of saving up for the future / sweating so that progress happens, it seems like agape, and so the love that I have towards civilization is easy to backpropagate towards its source.

Now, Adam Smith might point out that it's not the benevolence of the baker that I expect my dinner from, and one of the ways I frame things is capitalism as a way to direct civilization towards generative behavior (by tying it to consumption and status), in a way that leads to more creativity, which makes creative love more common and easier to see.

Anyway, this helped me understand my Christian parents better; I would talk with them sometimes about how I thought a lot about what the world would look like if God were in it, and what the world would look like if God weren't in it, and how this world looked a lot like the second. They were confused by this, and thought the world looked a lot like the first; but when you think about a world with agape as a powerful force/motivator vs. a world without powerful agape, I think this world looks much more like the first world than the second world. Of course, that doesn't imply Christianity is true, but makes it clearly part of the 'intellectual heritage of humankind', or something; we start off with cyclical religions, then we get religions of change, then we get a religion of progress through generous love.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-30T17:09:27.113Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the metanoia of his own transformation is seen by him as a powerful instance of this gnosis agape, but how that also carried with it a potential dark side in which elements of his identity get projected onto cosmic history and the idea of inner conflict within history / within God as being reflected of and reflected in his own inner conflict between the old Saul and the new Paul, and how much this gnosis / participatory knowing is bound up with an exploration and an understanding of how our agency can be fractured, how we can be at war with ourselves, how we can suffer.

Tillich (I'm still drawing from The Courage to Be) argues that Stoicism, while viable, is fundamentally unpopular because it picks renunciation instead of salvation.

Stoicism reaches its limits wherever the question is asked: How is the courage of wisdom possible? Although the Stoics emphasized that all human beings are equal in that they participate in the universal Logos, they could not deny the fact that wisdom is the possession of only an infinitely small elite. The masses of the people, they acknowledged, are “fools,” in the bondage of desires and fears. While participating in the divine Logos with their essential or rational nature, most human beings are in a state of actual conflict with their own rationality and therefore unable to affirm their essential being courageously.

It was impossible for the Stoics to explain this situation which they could not deny. And it was not only the predominance of the “fools” among the masses that they could not explain. Something in the wise men themselves also faced them with a difficult problem. Seneca says that no courage is so great as that which is born of utter desperation. But, one must ask, has the Stoic as a Stoic reached the state of “utter desperation”? Can he reach it in the frame of his philosophy? Or is there something absent in his despair and consequently in his courage? The Stoic as a Stoic does not experience the despair of personal guilt. Epictetus quotes as an example Socrates’ words in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates: “I have maintained that which is under my control” and “I have never done anything that was wrong in my private or in my public life.” And Epictetus himself asserts that he has learned not to care for anything that is outside the realm of his moral purpose. But more revealing than such statements is the general attitude of superiority and complacency which characterizes the Stoic diatribai, their moral orations and public accusations. The Stoic cannot say, as Hamlet does, that “conscience” makes cowards of us all. He does not see the universal fall from essential rationality to existential foolishness as a matter of responsibility and as a problem of guilt. The courage to be for him is the courage to affirm oneself in spite of fate and death, but it is not the courage to affirm oneself in spite of sin and guilt. It could not have been different: for the courage to face one’s own guilt leads to the question of salvation instead of renunciation.

That is, sure, if you do the right thing when you're in control, focusing only on the things that you can control is satisfying. But if you do the wrong things when you're in control, well, what then? It seems unsatisfying to say "well, I can't control the past" and just forget about it, or to constantly be resetting your identity, or to not have a story of why this happens and how it could be better.

On Less Wrong, we don't focus too much on sin and guilt, but there's a 'clear thinking' analog when it comes to mistakes / confusions. The sort of 'courage to think in spite of myth and falsehood' feels very different from the sort of 'courage to think in spite of fallibility and uncertainty'; I associate (perhaps unfairly) the first with 'skeptics', and the second with a sort of patient focus on smoothing out errors / reflecting on one's own mistakes / operating on the best available knowledge without being stupefied that feels like the steel rationalist to me.

[There's an old claim I don't have a link to, where someone who was into the occult and eventually snapped out of it realized that lots of mystics would describe scientists as "unable to deal with uncertainty", but this was projection; the scientific virtue was being able to clearly see and sit with your ignorance, whereas this person's scene couldn't handle ignorance, and so had to immediately paper over any holes with stories, even if those stories were fake.]

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-30T17:15:09.818Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also note the meta point here; if there's one "ideal thinking" state, and people start off in lots of randomly different "worse thinking" states, moving towards ideal thinking will be a different direction for different people, and one of the worries about taking one person's account of their transformation too seriously is typical minding [? · GW] (or, more weirdly, adopting the patterns of their pre-transformation mind so that you can follow the transformations that start from that point!).

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:25:03.625Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 1: Introduction

So last time we were beginning our historical examination of the origin of this capacity for meaning making to try to get a clearer picture of what it is. Today I'd like to continue on with what we were talking about: the connections between meaning-making, enhancing cognition, altered states of consciousness, wisdom.

We were talking about that in connection with the upper Paleolithic transition, in which human beings seem to have gone through this radical change which was not so much a biological change but a change in how they were using their cognition. We talked about important ideas such as cognitive exaption and psychotechnology and we talked about how the upper paleolithic transition was probably driven by the way shamanism was a set of psychotechnologies for altering states of consciousness to cognitively exapt the enhanced abilities that trade rituals and initiation rituals and healing rituals had already been creating. 

We talked about the way the shaman engaged in various disruptive strategies to try and alter their framing of reality, because how we frame reality is both the source of our adaptability / our ability to find patterns but it as how we can get locked in / how we misframe reality and how we are in need of insight. When we talked about that in connection to the nine dot problem, that led us to realize that there's kinds of knowing that are independent from the knowing that we capture in our statements of our beliefs. There's knowings about knowing how to do something, what it's like to have a particular perspective, and what it's like to know something by identifying with it and participating in it. 

I was starting to show you how the shaman's altered state of consciousness was also enhancing and altering meaning-making, affording insight, and improving the ability of the shaman to help in hunting and health case, two things that would radically improve survival. 

Replies from: Vaniver, romeostevensit, Spiracular, mike_hawke, Slider, weft
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:26:28.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a great SSC post, Read History of Philosophy Backwards, which seems relevant to framing the first half of the series. That is, the point of talking about shamans isn't that it's better than what we're doing today, or a direct response to the meaning crisis; the point of looking at shamans is in part to figure out how they worked (both what problems they were solving, and how they were solving them) and in part to figure out what life / society was like before there were any shamans.

I was a bit bugged by the 'placebo effect' discussion, mostly because I think he worded things wrong; 'placebo effect is 30-40% as effective as full medicine' is different from 'you do 30-40% better with placebo than nothing'.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T15:18:03.675Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the difference of the placebo wordings? Are you not including the placebo half into the full medice and consider anythign not part of the chemical medice to not be medicine?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-03T17:02:45.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the denominators of them are different. The first wording is "(medicine - placebo) / (medicine - no treatment) = 0.65", whereas the second wording is "(placebo - no treatment) / (no treatment) = 1.35".

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T18:04:56.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am still a bit confused. I would read the first as "(treatment-chemical)/treatment = 0.35" and I guess the overall point was. I don't think the case of secretly injecting peope with chemical was ever referred to or is it a typical experimental setting.

comment by romeostevensit · 2021-03-08T18:59:58.007Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see the meaning crisis as a function of increased neoteny. Parents provide meaning for children, elders provide meaning for adults. We don't have village elders and everyone is getting more child-like as they get wealthier.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-09T06:20:11.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh, I think I agree with lots of components of this, but somehow they're linked together in a way that seems shaky to me, or like it's jumping too far too quickly.

Like, yes there's increased neoteny, and yes there's increased wealth, but it's another leap to say that wealth makes people more neotenous. [More likely, from my models, there's another thing that is causing both, like the increased size and specialization of society. People have to learn longer / have more subservient roles to fit into larger, more complicated organizations, and those larger, more complicated organizations are better at producing goods and services / serving as 'parents' for much longer. More peace leads to less trauma which leads to less 'growing up fast.']

comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-08T21:39:08.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I appreciated the Foolishness vs Ignorance distinction he drew up in Episode 1.

"Foolishness is lack of wisdom, Ignorance is lack of knowledge" sounds initially trite. But when he drills a little further into it, it became clear that his use of "Foolishness" is trying to gesture at premature pattern-identification and pattern-fixation, with a failure to notice alternative patterns.

"Premature reification" is what I've heard Ozzie call something similar, and that's the handle I most often use for it.

There are probably some types of error that a child wouldn't make, but an adult would, because adults more readily project one of their pre-existing reifications.

...but also, you need a reification to build things or coordinate. They're not a thing you want to stop doing, they're a thing you want to learn to monitor, manage, and question sometimes.

It is good to have some tools to dislodge or rewrite reifications which don't actually apply. (And this seems to be what he sees as a selling-point of altered states.)

comment by mike_hawke · 2021-03-09T02:46:04.491Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had no idea that the metaphor "think outside the box" was derived from a math puzzle. That's pretty cool.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T15:21:11.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you have some conception of where it would have came from and what it was referring to? How can one understand an idiom if one doesn't understand the constituent parts?

comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T15:53:34.552Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am thinking whether wizards and really are shamanistic instances.

In a lot of stories wizards know a lot but are impractical, disinvolved and overtly theorethical. Those aspects don't really jive with the high wisdom aspects.

It is more that wizard are people that have knowledge that other people do not have. And while it might utilise wisdom to come up with such unusual things being able to receive or wield it doesn't have so high requirements. Wizards are associated with spellbooks and stuff which is clearly in the domain of sticking with a lot of propositional knowledge.

In particular my mind is that in Dungeos and Dragons, wizards have intelligence as their spellcasting stat while the cleric and monk have wisdom, sorcerers and warlock have charisma. I guess the more general class of "spellcasters" catches more fo the aspects and wizard is like the "default" spellcaster.

When the shaman is donning the deer mask they are essentially playing singleplayer D&D activating the muscle "roleplay".

Some fo the speelcaster seem to be revolving around some of the actions deemed beneficial. The warlock is about relying in an entity outside of yourself, your patron to get things done, to channel the other. Sorceresser are about enbodying the the improvement. You don't use the magic, you are the magic. Clerics tap into devotion and how intense focus and elaborate system opens new options.

comment by weft · 2021-03-12T05:44:20.784Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had previously watched an episode or two of this, and felt pretty meh about it. It felt like he overpromised and underdelivered, and talked a lot without getting to an actual point. I'm trying it again solely on the strength of your recommendation / it seems like you think there's a solid payoff if you stick with it. 

Replies from: Vaniver, weft
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T17:04:46.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is good to know; I've seen some people recommend it with "if you get through two lectures and you don't like it, it's not for you." So I'm not sure how strongly you should take my recommendation.

In particular, I think one of the things I liked most about it was seeing a thing I'm already deeply familiar with / interested in (rationality / how to orient one's life) from a new angle. The "history of philosophy as seen by a cognitive scientist" sounds way more interesting to me than "history of philosophy as seen by a philosopher", or something similar; it might or might not sound interesting to you.

That said, I think there's a thing going on with 'underdelivery', where the lecture is much more "these are the problems meditation is trying to solve, and this is why you might expect meditation to solve them" (with an ecosystem of practices, rather than just meditation), but listening to the lecture doesn't make you a skilled meditator; you have to actually meditate if you want to solve the problems that meditation solves. [You could imagine a similar lecture on physiology, wherein you end up with a knowledge of the history of movement and exercise and a sense of what you need to do--but also, you won't actually get fit without moving.] 

As well, a lot of his points are something like "here's a phrase that we've trivialized, but which you should take seriously", but maybe you do take the phrase seriously already, or him pointing at this still leads to you seeing the trivialized thing, since he hasn't actually helped you realize its meaning.

Replies from: weft
comment by weft · 2021-03-12T21:04:05.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've just watched two episodes now, and while it's interesting, it's also... throwing up a lot of epistemic red flags for me. 

He goes off on all these interesting tangents, but it feels more like "just so stories". Like he can throw all this information at me to get me to nod along and follow where he's going, without ever actually proving anything, and because there's all these tangents I feel like he can slip stuff in without me noticing. 

I've been listening to him for two hours now, and I still don't quite get what his thesis is, except "There's a meaning crisis." I feel like he's trying to push me towards a solution without being upfront from the beginning about what that solution is.... "Traditionalism", maybe? 

Or like maybe he's saying something simple in a very complex and long-winded way in order to feel deep? But maybe that is the required method of saying it to get it deeper into your brain. 

Replies from: Spiracular, Yoav Ravid, Vaniver, Slider
comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-13T07:31:21.022Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a single concrete thing he does that drives me nuts. I wonder if it may be a part of what is setting you off, too?

He overuses the term "unifying." He uses it three times an episode, to mean a different thing than I would usually mean by it. I really wish he'd cut it out.

I usually see "unifying" as signifying that there is an overarching model that takes some of the complexity of several models, and collapses them down together. Something that reduces "special casing."

He almost never means that. It's always adding more, or tying together, or connecting bits without simplifying. It comes off to me like a string of broken promises.

In my notes, it means that I produce a ton of pre-emptive "Summary Here Headers" (for theory unifications that seem to never come), that I had to delete in the end. Because usually, there isn't a deep shared root to summarize. When I come back to fill them in, all I find is a tangential binding that's thin as a thread. Which is just not enough to cohesively summarize the next 3 things he talked about as if they were a single object.

I think his "big theory" is actually something more like... spoilers... which I wouldn't have guessed at accurately from the first 2 episodes.

(I can't get spoilers to work on markdown, ugh. Stop reading if you want to avoid them.)

Maybe "attention as a terrain," or maybe something about aligning high-abstraction frames with embodied ones? The former feels basic to me at this point, but the later's actually a pretty decent line of thought.

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-13T09:13:41.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't recall any specific examples of him using "Unifying" that way, but what you describe does ring familiar. I think he tends to use verbose language where unnecessary. I'd love to get the Paul-Graham-edited-for-simplicity version of these lectures.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-13T04:40:15.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He isn't offering traditionalism, he recognizes that's infeasible. He's looking for something that's compatible with science and rationality, but also achieves the same thing traditional systems achieved (like creating meaning, purpose, fulfillment, community, etc.) His solution is to create an "ecosystem of practices" (such as meditation, journaling, circling and such) that are practiced communally. Sometimes he also calls it "The religion that isn't a religion".

On the one hand, I think there's still place for him to be clearer about his solution, on the other hand, he's clear that he's not actually sure yet how a solution would look like, and the purpose of this series is to define and understand the problem really well [LW · GW], and understand a bunch of background materiel that he expects will be relevant for finding a solution.

And yes, I think there's room for simplifying. If not the thesis, then at least the presentation. He uses very complex vocabulary that I'm not sure is really necessary. To me it feels like it detracts rather than add.

Replies from: weft
comment by weft · 2021-03-13T06:14:41.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

His solution is to create an "ecosystem of practices" (such as meditation, journaling, circling and such) that are practiced communally. Sometimes he also calls it "The religion that isn't a religion"

Two episodes / two hours in and he hasn't mentioned any of this that I recall. I feel like the introductory session should at least vaguely mention where he's going to be steering BEFORE you've invested many hours. 

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-13T19:26:06.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am pretty sympathetic to his reason for not doing this, which is something like "yes, at the end of the lecture you can say two sentences that feel to you like they capture the spirit. But do those two sentences have the power to transmit the spirit?" I think most summaries (mine included!) are papering over some of the inferential distance [? · GW].

I do also think he's much more tentative about proposed solutions than the problem. This isn't a "I have a great new exercise plan which will solve the obesity crisis", it's closer to "we're in an obesity crisis, this is the history of it and how I think the underlying physiological mechanisms work, and here's what might be a sketch of a solution." At which point foregrounding the sketch of the solution seems like it's putting the emphasis in the wrong place.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-13T04:58:06.740Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yoav's reply seems right to me. Also:

He goes off on all these interesting tangents, but it feels more like "just so stories".

Consider doing some epistemic spot checks [? · GW], where you randomly select some claims and try to figure out if his story checks out. One of the benefits of something like this lecture club is with enough eyes, we can actually get decent coverage on all of the bits of the lecture, and figure out where he's made mistakes or been misleading or so on, or if the number of mistakes is actually pretty low, end up confident in the remainder.

[I'm doing a more involved version of this that's going to pay off for some of the later lectures, which is he references a bunch of works by more recent philosophers, and so I'm reading some of those books to try to better situate what he says / see how much his take and my take agree.]

Replies from: weft
comment by weft · 2021-03-13T06:20:02.421Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consider doing some epistemic spot checks [? · GW]

 The issue here is that the easy, straightforward facts are all legit to the best of my knowledge (e.g. the basic history of the Bronze Age collapse and such), but the points that his thesis is more strongly built upon are not just straightforward fact checks (e.g. Pretending to be a deer helps you hunt deer, and tribes with shamans outperformed tribes without, etc)

It's like you list a bunch of real facts and real knowledge in order to make your point sound legit, and then put a bunch of wild speculation on top of it. (I'm not saying that's what he's doing, but that it's a really easy thing to do, and really hard to tell apart).

comment by Slider · 2021-04-03T15:31:40.918Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I got somewhat of a similar feeling skipped into episode title that seemed more interesting. Now having myself "spoiled" ona couple of things it is more clear what he is doing with the presentation. He is using sophisticated opinion in choosing a partiuclar path/story and wants the path to be followable step-by-step to the one that is walking it.

It is a the difference between coming up with a proof vs explaining a proof.

In doing the reverse ordering I can make connections on what the talkpoints are later connected to. Presented here itis "shamans do wonky stuff and it somehow works" but in reference to later how it might be plausible that the wierd stuff has tangilble (understandable by me here now) advantages makes it a more dynamic landscape to think in. Part fo the point might be that the shamans might be able to pick up on the advantages and thus a reason to repeat the behaviour/technique but they might not have a good gear-level understanding what it is doing or why it is working (or they or some of them could but can't neccesarily chare the insight to the uninitiated).

comment by weft · 2021-03-12T06:15:16.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

His digression about shamans really getting into the mindset of a deer in order to better track them reminds me of a skill "Pretending to Be" that I think is useful for many skills.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-22T17:00:48.422Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 34: Sacredness: Horror, Music, and the Symbol

Last time we were continuing our exploration of sacredness. I talked about that, in contrast to but also in concert with Geertz's notion of sacredness as 'homing us against horror', we have the proposal from Otto that sacredness puts us into contact with the numinous, which basically exposes us to what is horrifying (at least, the limits of us), because it has an aspect of awe, with a little bit more, which is to remind us. Humiliation, in the original sense of the word: to keep us humble, to give us humility, to remember that as we are feeling that sense of expansiveness with awe that we are precisely ultimately limited creatures. 

So I propose to you that these two opponent aspects of sacredness can be seen very readily within the light of the machinery of relevance realization, where the worldview attunement is a form of meta-meaning and therefore meta-assimilation (ultimately compression, integration, things fitting together). We get an opposite which is the meta-accommodation afforded by confronting the numinous in awe and, potentially, horror. We talked about how horror is about exactly the confrontation with that which demands from us unanswerable, unachievable accommodation.

So I propose to you that what sacredness is is to play with (seriously play with!) the machinery of relevance realization as found within the primordial aspects of religio, and that doing this would be deeply advantageous to us because it is so foundational to our agency, to the world as an arena for our action, to our capacities for self-transcendence, and so forth. But caught up with that, when I invoked music as an example of this, was the idea that we often do this serious play by engaging in symbolic behavior. So I'm putting 'the symbol' here as something that has the capacity to function both ways: it can bring us into meta-accommodation but of course it can also bring meta-assimilation. It can bridge between these two and it can go in both directions.

Replies from: Vaniver, Slider
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-22T19:21:32.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So his core take on sacredness/horror/the numinous, as I understand it, is this:

  • Humans are limited and finite in a world that is much bigger than they are (both physically and conceptually).
  • An important part of existing in the world is 'having a grip on things'; I'm imagining, like, a climber on a cliff or a remora stuck onto a shark; it's not that you hold the world in your hands (as a thing smaller than you), but that you have control over your position, both resisting unwanted changes and making desired changes (at least in a limited way).
  • "The numinous" is that which is outside your ability to contain / understand, and is mostly on a dimension of 'power / glory' instead of morality. [More 'Lovecraftian elder gods' or 'forces of history that can't be stopped' or so on.]
  • He's pretty clear on what he means by 'horror'. It's "losing your grip on reality", and so more associated with madness/insanity than fear. [He distinguishes it from 'horror films', which he thinks are mostly about the fear of predation, and 'terror', which he sees as too linked to 'terrorism'; I observe that it reminds me a lot of 'body horror', which is about losing your grip on yourself, in some ways.]
  • I don't quite get what he's saying about sacredness. I think it's something like: there's a way in which the numinous is intrinsically horrifying because it involves something that you can't really come to grips with (you can't handle the cliff-as-a-whole even tho you can handle the cliff-as-many-handholds), but whether you experience this as 'horror' is mostly about whether or not you're overwhelmed. In horror, you have the experience of scrambling for purchase and not finding anything and this is overwhelming. Sacredness then is more like the 'good sort' of seeing beyond yourself, in a way where you at least have a handle on not having a handle on it (or something?).
  • Like, I'm thinking of Augustine's conception of the trinity, where he spent a long time trying to figure out this puzzle and then went "oh, this puzzle is beyond me", in a way that was... reassuring to him, somehow? "I will sooner draw all the water from the sea and empty it into this hole than you will succeed in penetrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited understanding." Vervaeke uses someone else's phrase, of "homing against horror", and the way that's landing here is something like "having accepted that this is too big to contain" instead of "being freaked out about this being too big to contain."

I think the overall move is something like: even if you grow as much as possible, there will still be things bigger than you; you need some way to handle that. But also there are things that are 'just within your reach'; the way you grow is by hanging out around them, doing serious play with them, and so on; so you need something that helps you come to grips with your limited size in a way that puts you in positions to grow bigger (instead of giving up on growth as 'impossible' because you can never be infinitely large).

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-24T00:29:15.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding "Puzzle beig over me", Vervaeke emphasises that puzzles are not mysteries. I think he is also getting to something extra with the numinous. It is weird to me as understanding Din, Nayru and Fafore as part of the triforce or the feud between Chattur'gha, Ulyaoth and Xel'lotath, yeah it might be interesting and there might not be a lot of head way, but it doesn't at face value seem to have the personal bespokedness than the trinity approach despite on theme level being essentially the same or aspects of the same meme-complex. If I don't ever discover what Twin Peaks was about sure it is is mystery but not a world-view affecting one. There seems to be some attempt at some sort of distinction which trinity has but triforce has not, but it doesn't really materialise at the same level as the other concepts do.

comment by Slider · 2021-04-22T19:10:21.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He gave example of bad and moderate horror things but I very good and on poitnon horror memory activated for me.

Initially developed for the Nintendo 64, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requirem was released for the GamCube. Protagonist inherits a mansion, father gets murdered, zombies get slashed etc.. The game had 3 pirmary resources, your health, your mana and your sanity. The lower your sanity got the more the game had permission to drive you mad. Standard effects woudl involve like people crying starting to get heard, extra blood on the walls. However the most extreme of these "insanity effects" would mess with your understanding that you were playing a game.

They are just cool I am going to give some examples.

  1. The game would randomly draw which looked like a audio volume control bar and made it go low while silencing all sound output. This was likely to trick you to think that your TVs settings were altered.
  2. The game would slowly make fuzzy blob coalesece into insect and spider shapes and then fade them out. The gradual onset would bypass most peoples change detection so you were not likley to notice it appearing but moving your eye to taht part of the screen for unrelated reason. This made it likely to to think tha a spider was crawling on top of your TV
  3. The game would present a technical error screen, "blue screen". This was likely to make you think that your GameCube was damaged. (The instruction booklet had claming words for those that went to check whether that is supposed to happen)
  4. It was the days when you had to manually save your game. The game would boot you to the title screen and when you went to load your save it would show the memory card empty.
  5. The game would make the torches flicker with a filter that would mimic a damaged speaker.
  6. Upon existing a room it would randomly pull up a "The adventures will continue in the sequel" type of screen (making you think you were being left dry with a cliffhanger).
  7. In a game scarse with ammo the game would suddenly present you a room full of ammo just to yank it away (got your hopes, up didn't I?) This is 4th wall leaning because it is more about players awareness of game design rather than the world being depicted.

With all the talk about participatory knowing these are modes of horrors that are uniquely well adapted to be done on an interactive medium.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-14T15:36:08.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 28: Convergence to Relevance Realization

So last time I went through with you a series of arguments trying to show you the centrality of the issue of relevance realization. I want to review that with you and then try to begin with an account of how we might come up with a naturalistic explanation of relevance realization and then build that into an overall plausibility argument about using that notion of relevance realization to explain many of the features that we consider central to human spirituality, meaning-making, self-transcendence, altered states of consciousness, and wisdom.

Before I begin that I want to remind everybody of how much the work I'm talking about now has been done in collaboration with other people, especially the work with Tim Lillicrap and Blake Richards in 2012, the article we published in the journal of logic and computation with Leo Ferraro in 2013, some current work with Leo Ferraro, Anderson Todd, and Richard Wu, current work I'm doing with Christopher Mastropietro, and some past work with Zachary Irving and Leo Ferraro on the nature of intelligence.

We did a series of argument that pointed towards how central relevance realization is. We did arguments around the nature of problem-solving, and remember we saw the idea there of search space as proposed by Newell and Simon and we faced a couple of important issues there. We faced issues of combinatorial explosion, and what we need is problem formulation or problem framing that allows us to avoid combinatorial explosion by zeroing in on relevant information. I also propose to you (and I'll return to this later) that problem-solving is our best way of trying to understand what we mean by intelligence: your capacity as being a general problem-solver. 

Also we noted the problem of ill-definedness, very often a problem formulation is needed in order to determine what the relevant information is and what the relevant structure of the information is so that again points us into relevance. These two together also pointed towards a phenomena we have already talked about (insight) and the fact that you often have to solve a problem by altering your problem formulation and re-determining what you consider relevant.

We then took a look at categorization (I'll come back to this again in another way a little bit later in this lecture), how it ultimately depends on judgments of similarity and we can get into an equivocation there. We can equivocate between a purely logical notion of similarity in which case any two objects are indefinitely similar or dissimilar to each other and if we mean instead of logical similarity (which would not help us to categorize) psychological similarity then we're talking about making a comparison of two things in terms of the relevant features of comparison, the relevant aspects. So we're into relevance and we're also introducing an important idea I want you to remember, this notion of an 'aspect', a set of relevant features that cohere together and are relevant to us, especially in projects like categorization.

Doing good cog-sci, I do a convergence argument to get a trustworthy problem or construct and then I basically do a divergence argument to show how it has the potential to explain many important phenomena and establish a relevant balance between them, and so that's what I'm building you. Right now we're on this side, how all things are converging on relevance realization and then we can use this to explain many of the features that seem to be central to human spirituality, meaning-making, self-transcendence, altered states of consciousness, and wisdom.

We took a look at communication, and we saw the issue here is that the fact you have to convey more than you can say and then that led us into the work of Grice and a series of maxims that make conversational implicature possible. All of the maxims collapsed to the maxim of being relevant.

We took a look at robotics, the actual interaction with the environment. Here's the idea of being an agent. We saw the robot was trying to pull the battery that's also on the wagon and that wagon also has the bomb on it and what we saw is the problem of the proliferation of side effects. You can't ignore all the side effects or you'll be grotesquely stupid, you can't check all side effects or you'll be grotesquely incapable, and so therefore you have to zoom in on their relevant side effects. So again and again and again everything is centering on this.

Replies from: Slider, Vaniver
comment by Slider · 2021-04-17T14:34:31.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As an autistic person at parts he seemed to argue that neurotypicality would be at the core of being intelligent.

The social situations (like asking for gas) he described he presented them as not working to never happen. However the ire and tensions when it doesn't go as planned seemed very familiar to me. As the person giving advice I would have probably leaned more on using explicit distance descriptors (such as 250 meters) rather than nearby corner.

Connecting to how he was previously saying things he might actually mean that in order to be rational to need to be both intelligent and wise but he ends up saying that you can't be intelligent if you are a spock. So the class of persons who are intelligent but unwise and therefore fail to be rational would be interesting. But because he uses intelligence in place of rationality here it reads as emotionally saliently offensive to me that he is saying that autistic people can't be intelligent. Having signficant differences in salience landscape could be an interesting angle to look into autism. The previous example of most people filtering out the feeling of washlabels from their clothes is a real thing but for many autistic people the situation is so that they do feel and are bothered by the tactile feels.

So it is not human universal that he is pointing to but more of the neurotypical expererience. There might be interesting upsides on weighting global context heavily in ones operation but the claims that leaning into local context would be unlivable can easily start to read as xenoneurologically hateful. I don't think that neurotypicality is at the core of humanity, and to the extent he is saying that an intelligent autistic person is an impossibility is is just wrong. It might be that he is mixing on what constitues him strongly on what constitues people in general strongly. The example of animal communication seems to resonate with neurotypicals being very social-dependent and the example of octopuses might have an analog in autistic people in that communication doesn't need to be that essential to intelligence. The statement is carried with reservations but I get a feeling that he is not taking his own reservations as seriously as he would be wise to do. Previously he was saying that a good cogscientist pays attention to universals and recognising when assumed universal is broken not to be universal would seem to be a part of that.

I guess with the material he is presenting I can apply it to understand that because he doesn't have the participatory knowing required his framing will be off and therefore the mistakes understandble. The analysis is interesting but with such core tenets being off will have large fallouts.

As a person that might not intuitively on a neurological level have salience tuning working having explicit and systematical understanding how to construct relevance seems like a sensible value proposition.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-14T15:42:18.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The issue of considering the right side effects, of course, made me think about EDT vs. CDT vs. FDT, tho here he's making a simpler and more practical claim.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-13T17:07:58.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 27: Problem Formulation

So we have been looking at the cognitive science of intelligence, and we've been looking at the seminal work of Newell and Simon, and we've seen how they are trying to create a plausible construct of intelligence to drive many different ideas together into this idea of 'intelligence as the capacity to be a general problem solve' and then they're doing a fantastic job of applying the naturalistic imperative which helps us avoid the homuncular fallacy, because we're trying to analyze, formalize, and mechanize our explanation of intelligence, explaining the mind ultimately in a non-circular fashion by explaining it in non-mental terms.

This will also hopefully give us a way of resituating the mind within the scientific worldview. We saw that at the core of their construct was the realization via the formalization and attempted mechanization of the combinatorial explosive nature of the problem space and how crucial relevance realization is and how somehow you zero in on the relevant information. They proposed a solution to this that has far-reaching implications for our understanding of meaning cultivation and of rationality; they propose the distinction between heuristic and algorithmic processing and the fact that most of our processing has to be heuristic in nature.

It can't pursue certainty, it can't be algorithmic, it can't be Cartesian in that fashion, and that also means that our cognition is susceptible to bias. The very processes that make us intelligently adaptive help us to ignore the combinatorial explosive amount of options and information available to us are the ones that also prejudice us and bias us so that we can become self-deceptively misled. 

They deserve to be seminal figures and they exemplify how we should be trying to do cognitive science and the exemplify the power of the naturalistic imperative, but there were serious shortcomings in Newell and Simon's work. They themselves (and this is something we should remember, even as scientists: the scientific method is a psychotechnology designed to try to help us deal with our proclivities towards self-deception) fell prey to a cognitive heuristic that biased them. They were making use of the essentialist heuristic, which is crucial to our adaptive intelligence. It helps us find those classes that do share an essence and therefore allow us to make powerful predictions and generalizations. 

Of course the problem with essentialism is precisely it is a heuristic, it is adaptive; we are tempted to overuse it and that will make us mis-see many categories do not possess an essence, like Wittgenstein famously pointed out the category of 'game' or 'chair' or 'table'. Newell and Simon thought that all problems were essentially the same, and because of that how you formulate a problem is a rather trivial matter. Because of that, they were blinded to the fact that all problems are not essentially the same, that there are essential differences between types of problems, and therefore problem formulation is actually very important.

This is the distinction between well-defined problems and ill-defined problems. I made the point that most real-world problems are ill-defined problems; what's missing in an ill-defined problem is precisely the relevance realization that you get through a good problem formulation. We then went into work in which Simon himself participated, the work of Kaplan and Simon to show that this self-same relevance realization through problem formulation is at work at addressing combinatorial explosion. We took a look at the problem of the mutilated chessboard, and that if you formulate it as a covering strategy you will get into a combinatorial explosive search whereas if you formulate it as a parity strategy, if you make salient the fact that the two removed pieces are the same color, then the solution becomes obvious to you and very simple to do. Problem formulation helps you avoid combinatorial explosion and helps you deal with ill-definedness and this process by which you move from a poor problem formulation to a good problem formulation is the process of insight. 

This is why we have seen throughout that insight is so crucial to you being a rational cognitive agent and that means that in addition to logic being essential for our rationality those psychotechnologies that enhance our capacity for insight are also crucially important (indispensable!).

Replies from: Slider, lise
comment by Slider · 2021-04-17T13:12:19.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can start to read intoa pattern where in the theorethical sections he can refer to concepts as previously known as they are "srpinkled in beforehand" where their previous appearance are justified but only like weakly justified, standing out as odd inclusions. I guess it helps with salience but it also feels like a manipulative technique as it makes it seems artificially profound, the first instances are pretty trivial and then they are reused in critical junctions. Like in the movie Inception, it is a revelation planned out by an outside force in order to achieve a goalstate of the outside agent.

Just bruteforcing a big search space feels to my brain to more be frustration rather than suicide, more of a null operation rather than being actively harmful. Sure it is an unwise move but part of the threat of it would be that it doesn't "timeout" it doesn't say itself that it is a bad idea (whereas having a thing like a sword in your stomach would probably make it pretty salient that this choice might not be the most conductive to biological prosperity).

I don't now how much it is baked into the idea of heuristics but if you are stuck using only preselected heuristics then the lack of flexibility and blindspots are obvoius. What one would ideally want to do is come up with the heuristics on the fly and I guess that is part of what relevance realization is going to be about.

Having watched some things out of order I can see him struggle to keep the narrative in check seeing slips where how he is thinking about it is in conflict how the narrative is progressing.

It was weird that the covering problem in the part when "people usually frame it as a covering problem" it made my brain predict that "it is actually a parity problem". But that impulse did not make it obvious what the trick was like. At the mention of what the colors of the removed squares are I predicted the "domino stands on different colored squares" property, how it is helpful and important. I was in this weird state that I vaguely had a hint of what the trick was about without it being obvious and not making all the connections.

I was thinking that part of the problem formulation is instead of seeing the problem as "ground level moves" bruteforcing throught the heuristics would be less combinatorily explosive. In this kind of search "just ehaust all options" would be rather quickly categorised as "doesn't solve atleast fast". And this process is likely recursive in that one could come up with strategies in which order to try heuristics. and in the other direction "searching all the options" is a stepping back of the kind of procedure "a thing I am doing doesn't work (errors), lets do something else". Frustration on this level would mean repeating the action and the error verbatim. This seems to be connected to "madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results" and the skill of saying oops.

A lot of lesswrongian values seems to be referenced with feeling of discovering them from a different angle. Here their importance on how they upkeep other systems is more pronounced. With previous expose on lesswrong it was more in the flavour of "here is a thing that you can aquire and is cool".

comment by lise · 2021-05-08T21:41:31.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

s/Kim Stein/Wittgenstein

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-09T05:13:31.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fixed, thanks!

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-26T15:14:33.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 15: Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

So last time we had begun to take a look at the transformation that was occuring in the eastern Mediterranean around the time of the advent of what was going to become Christianity. Of course, this figures upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a very controversial figure to say the least. As I said, I'm not going to endeavor to claim to give the absolute or exhaustive account of this extraordinary individual, but instead I'm going to try to do what I've done before, which is to show how what he did contributed to our understanding of meaning and wisdom and how that eventually pushed forward the history that has led to the meaning crisis.

So we were talking about one of the core messages of Jesus. Jesus seems to have understood himself, or at least those around him understood him, as Kairos. If you remember, that's a turning point in the course of history, because as we spoke before the Israelites and by this time they were known as the Jews had developed the psychotechnology of understanding history as a cosmic narrative in which there are crucial turning points.

Jesus saw himself as such a Kairos. Whether or not he saw himself as the Kairos that was known as the Jewish Messiash is again controversial, I don't need that for the purposes of my argument. It seems though that he had a sense of himself as deeply participating in the way in which God was directing and involving himself in the course of history. If you remember the model of God we talked about when we talked about the ancient Israelites, the God of the Exodus is a God who is creating into an open future. Human beings participate in that creation by identifying with a particular course, loving it, being shaped by it, as well as shaping / participating in its flow.

Jesus of Nazareth saw himself as having an especially deep participation such that he felt himself to be at one with this God who is capable of altering the course of history and redeeming human beings. He seems to have understood this Kairos as having something to do with a profound way of understanding the participation in God. This participatory knowing is a process in which you're coupled; you're neither making it nor being made by it, but it's this reciprocal revelation in which you are making it and it is making you. The way you participate in your culture, the way you participate in your language, the way you participate in your history. You know this not by gathering beliefs but the way in which your self is fundamentally transformed.

Jesus understood his participation in God as the disclosing of this profound kind of love. We began talked about the kinds of love that human beings experience, and how love is something that deeply transforms who we are and our salience landscape / our character. We talked about how the Greeks have three terms, and it's helpful because by this time the New Testament is being written in Greek. It's helpful to understand these Greek terms:

1. Eros, which is the love of being one with something. It can be just, you know, drinking water so I become one with it. Of course it could become what has become more commonly known as "becoming one with someone" through sexual union. Erotic love.
2. Philia, that's at the core of philosophy. This is the love that is borne of right cooperation. So eros is consumptive, making one with, philia is cooperation, work together. A lot of how we succeed as human being is by the way we work together.
3. Jesus starts to emphasize a new kind of love: agape. This is not the love of consumption or cooperation; this is the love of creation. It's the love that God is demonstrating towards humanity in the way God is an ongoing creation of the open future. So God is creating the future, is creating the historical process and course of that history that makes people possible.

See, agape is the kind of love that creates persons. So the main metaphor for agape is the way a parent love a child. You don't love a child because you want to consume it in some way (that's hideous and vicious!), you don't love your child when you bring it home from the hospital because it's a great friend to you (it can't cooperate! It can't do that at all; in fact isn't not even a person. It's not a morally rationally reflective agent; in fact it's exactly the opposite), you love it precisely because by loving that non-person you turn it into a person. This is a powerful, creative, god-like ability that we have: by participating through love in another being we can transform that being from a non-person into a person; a person that could enter into a community of persons and find meaning, fellowship, belonging. 

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-26T15:15:41.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So Marcus Aurelius (and the Stoics) get 45 minutes of the lecture, and then Jesus and the short version of agape get the last 15 minutes. But the next lecture is mostly about expanding on those 15 minutes, and so the summary focuses on it. So here's a brief list of the Stoic things he covers (mostly using quotes or paraphrases):

  1. The Buddha was trying to make you realize how threatened you are, and you don't have as much control as you think you do. Epictetus says the core of wisdom is in knowing what's in your control and what's not in your control, and stop pretending that things are in your control that aren't.
  2. Fromm, brought up before as distinguishing the having mode and the being mode, basically got that distinction from the Stoics.
  3. The Stoics shifted focus from products (having mode) to process (being mode), because you have lots of control over the latter but not the former. This involves a lot of practices that are similar to mindfulness / remembering the being mode.
  4. Marcus Aurelius writes a book, which shouldn't be interpreted in the propositional way; it's written to himself. It's spiritual exercises.
  5. Marcus Aurelius has the philosophical problems especially *because* he had power and fame. Unlike the Buddha, he doesn't try to leave the palace; he doesn't want to shirk his moral responsibilities (to use his power wisely). 
  6. The "view from above" helps you situate things correctly. Looking at situations from above, instead of your perspective, helps you be objective / treat others fairly.
  7. Lots of modern CBT is basically just Stoicism; 'internalizing Socrates' is inculcating the sort of mental habits and doubt that dissolve incorrect thinking. "Everything I do is a failure!" "Everything?" asks Socrates.
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-11T15:59:19.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 4: Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom

Last time we talked about how the Axial Revolution came into Greece. We first reviewed Pythagoras and then we concentrated especially on the figure of Socrates and the Socratic revolution. We saw again how issues of meaning, wisdom, and self-transcendence are so tightly bound up together. We took a look at Socrates and how he has a particular conception of wisdom in which what we find salient or relevant is closely coupled to what we find true or real.

Those two concerns--what is transformative of us and what is true of the world--are meant to be held together and this was pivotal in Socrates's method of trying to get people to realize how much they (all of us!) are so prone to having those two come uncoupled from each other.

We become subject to bullshit and to self-deception. A life that is beset by self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior is not a life that's worth living. The way to afford human flourishing is by developing the skills/the wisdom to keep those two tightly coupled together.

Socrates was so convinced of how important this was to making a life meaningful that he was prepared to die for it. As I mentioned, there was somebody who was a follower of him who was at his trial, not present at his death, but was deeply traumatized and affected by his death and this of course is Plato.

Replies from: Vaniver, Harry Taussig
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-11T17:08:51.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Continuing on last week's commentary, Socrates mostly makes sense as part of this move from the continuous cosmos (in which the Gods are physically real and power is what matters) to the two worlds mythology (in which the material world is low and a different world is high).

Like, we begin in a world where Power is Glorious, where Zeus commands respect because he can zap with you lightning bolts. If you read The Iliad, it's full of people (and gods!) explicitly threatening each other. Aphrodite tells Helen to have sex with Paris, Helen doesn't want to, and Aphrodite replies with "look, this is me being nice to you, do you want to see me being mean to you?", and Helen goes through with it. Hera complains about Zeus, her son pleads with her to stop because he doesn't want to stand idly by and watch Zeus beat her (standing idly by, of course, because Zeus could easily beat him as well). The importance of heroes is determined primarily by where they fall in the power ranking, rather than their moral qualities. The Achilles-Agamemnon conflict is mostly about how respect should be distributed between power and legitimacy. And we somehow end up in a world where Truth is Sacred.

Socrates does something that seems sort of astounding to me, which is conflate goodness and power strongly enough to insist "look, Zeus has to be a moral exemplar, otherwise he wouldn't be a God." A related perspective--"if God exists, we need to destroy him / put him on trial for his crimes"--seems pretty common in rationalist fiction, at least. From this perspective, refusing to bow from pressure from the citizens of Athens seems like the obvious move. "Look, either they're right and I should accept the punishment, or they're wrong and I'll be a martyr for the truth, which is better than living without principles."

There's a parable that I like, about a monk and a samurai: 

A monk and a samurai were both in a shrine when a sudden rainstorm appeared. The samurai, seeing an opportunity to show off, stepped into the rain, darting quickly and dodging raindrops, so that he was able to make it all the way to the torii and back without being hit by a single drop of rain.

The monk calmly stepped out of the shrine and was immediately inundated. "I am dry on the inside," he said.

The samurai, seeing that he was beaten, grew red with anger, pulled out his katana, and cut the monk in half.

Normally I read this with the sense that "yes, you can redefine victory by changing your perspective, but only so far." The monk can't physically say "I am whole on the inside," because he's dead. But this is what Socrates is doing! He's taking his ability to reframe 'winning' to its logical conclusion. 

And, importantly, this is what's happening in things like Functional Decision Theory, where one is trying to do the thing that leads to the logical you winning, instead of this particular you. You need that to be saved from the desert in Parfit's Hitchhiker, as well as other problems, in a way that will show up more later.

[Two others come up in this lecture but don't make it into the summary: Thales, the first philosopher thinking scientifically (by which we mean from a 'causal systems' perspective instead of a 'mythological narrative' perspective), and the sophists, who study persuasion independently of truthseeking [? · GW].]

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-11T17:51:30.146Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just wanted to say that even if i don't find something to say and don't comment, i still enjoy reading the summery each day and especially your commentary, so thanks! 

comment by Harry Taussig · 2021-05-10T03:12:52.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seeking of both truth and relevance together feels so important. I wonder where in modern society we see this the most. 

I like the concept in this lecture a lot of bullshitting vs. lying to yourself. Even in a lot of the self-help genre, which seems to be going after a similar goal to Socrates of becoming a good person, there is a lot of bullshit in the form of misguided values (fame, fortune, etc). We have few institutions, structures, or communities that enable people to strive over both truth and relevance.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:22:59.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta discussion about how to do this:

(This is the sort of place to complain that 5 lectures a week is too many, or to propose that we have a weekly discussion event in the Walled Garden, or so on.)

Replies from: Vaniver, Vaniver, Ikaxas, Spiracular, Spiracular
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T04:36:47.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll be in the Walled Garden to talk about lectures 1-5 from 4pm to 6pm (Pacific time) this Sunday; here's the invite link.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-11T16:01:42.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just realized that LW lets you embed YouTube videos in comments! I assume this was built in to the editor, rather than a feature we added?

Replies from: habryka4
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-03-12T07:21:17.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Required some integration from both sides. But yeah, the new editor made it much easier.

comment by Ikaxas · 2021-03-08T23:00:09.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So one thing I'm worried about is having a hard time navigating once we're a few episodes in. Perhaps you could link in the main post to the comment for each episode?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-09T01:12:00.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great idea, will do.

comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-08T21:28:38.646Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lesswrong doesn't have a "group"-like (user subthread) functionality, and I mostly think Lesswrong is currently not an optimal place to do "subscribe to a sequence of posts" content (...ironically?), since it doesn't seem presently rigged for this.

(I thought they discontinued sequences functionality? They may have actually limited access to it to a karma score or something, and I'm holding this assumption weakly.)

These are counterbalanced for me by the accessibility/reach of LW (for audience and commenters) and the expected quality of comments, though. And it's always possible to just provide in-text links to tie together a sequence. I think I've convinced myself not to push to change it; it's a fine choice.

I'm... really curious to see how well "discussion-driven something-or-other" goes. I was a little disappointed with how little engagement the "Questions" section sometimes got, and I usually think of "Link-out w/ discussion" as a slightly-similar datatype.

Replies from: Vaniver, Raemon, Raemon
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T21:59:14.771Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think if I wanted I could make this a Sequence of posts. I'm also quite curious to see how it goes.

For what it's worth, I like having all of the discussion on one page (in part because coming back to this page shows you discussion on the other lectures), but maybe it will get unwieldy. [In the Old Days we had to break up the intro threads whenever they hit 500 comments or so, and quite possibly this post will end up with so many comments that we'll have to break it up also. Probably the team is fine with me signing them up to do surgery on this post if necessary. :P]

comment by Raemon · 2021-03-08T23:00:10.171Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

BTW, everyone can make a sequence (the button is available on the /library page, deliberately a bit out-of-the-way for new users. Users with 1000 karma should see the menu-item right next to the "new post" button in the User menu)

comment by Raemon · 2021-03-08T22:57:29.285Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that people can subscribe to posts-of-a-given-tag. (I agree you should also be able to subscribe to a sequence, but, this is a hack for now)

comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-08T21:28:21.978Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post seems to be the meta-Lecture Club, not Episode 1, so I'm a tad confused about where to object-comment on Epi 1 (high-level? subthread on Episode 1 summary? Both seem a little suboptimal.)

This probably resolves itself as "just do a highest-level comment" after Epi 1, but I wanted to express the confusion.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T21:56:29.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry about that; object-level commentary on Episode 1 should happen underneath the Episode 1 comment [LW(p) · GW(p)].

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:22:51.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta discussion about why to do this:

(This is the sort of place to complain that this is off-topic for LW, or to say that you're participating, or to talk about why participating makes sense or doesn't.)

Replies from: Vaniver, Kaj_Sotala, Yoav Ravid
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T15:28:49.130Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anna Salamon on Twitter (talking about a different video, by a related person):

I was impressed by both Daniel Schmachtenberger and, relatedly, Vervaeke. Makes me think there is a living locus of something-like-sanity, + hope and effort, + something-like-pedagogy, that is distinct from LW. Very interested.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-03-08T17:06:36.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been having this lecture series recommended me by lots of different people, but so far haven't gotten farther than reading through Valentine's summaries. Maybe I'll get around watching some of it now.

Replies from: Richard_Kennaway
comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-03-08T18:42:14.043Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've watched some of Vervaeke's lectures, but they just seem to go on and on without ever reaching whatever his goal is. Likewise Jordan Peterson. Having just read through Valentine's document (mainly the lecture summaries, rather than the detailed notes), I am still disappointed. Vervaeke just breaks off at the end, just as it seemed it might get interesting. It goes to lecture 26, the last of which suggests there are more to come. I look forward to summaries of them, but more with hope than with expectation.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-08T19:51:32.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think you'll appreciate the summaries we end up with of the second half of the series.

I've watched some of Vervaeke's lectures, but they just seem to go on and on without ever reaching whatever his goal is.

I think this is both fair and unfair, and am trying to figure out how to articulate my sense of it.

I think there's a way to consider thinking that views it as just being about truth/exactness/etc., and turning everything into propositional knowledge. I think there's another way to consider thinking that views it as being a delicate balancing act between different layers of knowledge (propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory being the four that Vervaeke talks about frequently). I have a suspicion that a lot of his goal is transformative change in the audience, often by something like moving from thinking mostly about propositions to thinking in a balanced way, but from the propositional perspective this will end up seeming empty, or full of lots of things that don't compile to propositions, or only do so vacuously.

"So what was his point? What does it boil down to?" "Well... boiling it isn't a good mode of preparation, actually; it kills the nutritional value because it denatures the vitamin C."

Talk of "his goal" reminds me of a line from SSC's review of 12 Rules for Life: "But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book." [Noting that Vervaeke isn't trying to be a prophet, or make his own solution; I think he's trying to do science on wisdom, and help people realize the situation that they / humanity are in.] 

But anyway, let's jump ahead a lot and talk about my main goal (ignoring, for a moment, the many secondary goals).

There's a thing that LW-style rationalism holds near its core, which is "rationalists should win". That is, the procedural commitments to rationality are because those commitments pay off (like the point of believing things is that they pay rent in anticipated experiences, etc.). The 'art of refining human rationality' is about developing more psychotechnologies that lead to more winning. It feels to me like there's a big hole in our understanding that's at least labeled in this series: the problem of 'relevance realization'.

As an example, there's a thing that LW-style Bayesianism does, which says "well, induction is solved in principle by Solomonoff Induction, we just need to make an approximator to that." Vervaeke identifies this as the problem of combinatorial explosion: the underlying task is impossible, and so you need an impossible machine in order to accomplish it. [He doesn't address SI directly, but if he did, I think he would describe it as "absurd", meaning detached from reality, which it is!]

But actual humans somehow have a sense of what considerations are relevant in any particular case, and this has detail and internal structure to it, can be more or less appropriate, and thus should be a branch of psychoengineering. To the extent that AI alignment is about 'developing machine wisdom' to best use the machine intelligence, a mechanistic theory of developing human wisdom seems potentially fruitful as an area of study. 

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-08T16:02:41.936Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a cool idea. i watched the lecture series and also thought much of it is highly relevant to LW. speaking of relevance, i thought his idea of relevance realization was especially relevant, and even thought/tried to write a post about it. so I'm happy you started this :)

Question: Is making top level comments ok? or do you want to keep it to only the three you made already? if so maybe make another one for open discussion on the series?

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-28T14:53:01.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 38: Agape and 4E Cognitive Science

So last time I was making a proposal to you of how we could address the perennial problems, and I gave you a systematic set of things that could be cultivated in an integrated fashion for addressing perennial problems and then we saw how our attempts to ameliorate and alleviate the perennial problems interact with the historical forces and that we get the fundamental undermining of meaning in life and that problem set by Wolf and then I propose to you that there was a response to that in terms of the notion of Agape. Then I moved into directly addressing the historical forces, looking about for something like what the three orders did for us, and then I proposed to you that if we took a look at 4E cognitive science, third generation cogsci, and in particular some of the insights afforded by 4E cognitive science that were pointed out by Varela in his article, we can see a way in which we can get a worldview that strongly situates our meaning-making processes within it (legitimates it). 

We talked about how we can recover something like the nomological order and the normative order and how we can move to something post-narrative, an open-ended optimization that is seeking for a depth of realization rather than a historical combination. I proposed to you bringing with that whole project of responding to the historical forces a new notion from Goodenough's work on 'transcendence into' rather than 'transcendence above or beyond', and how that is resonant and consonant with the picture that we've been working on together. A couple things remain that are central; one of course is to give a cognitive scientific account of wisdom.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-28T15:14:04.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone used to '4E' referring to, say, 'fourth edition', that the third generation of cogsci is called 4E is a bit confusing. But it stands for Embodiment, Embedded, Enactive, Extended; that is, human cognition is shaped by human bodies, happens in the physical world, is an action, and is extended through interactions with the world and psychotechnologies. [Consider how having a pencil and paper extends thought.]

The main upshot of all of this (besides being more current science) is that it's a devastating response to Descartes. Actually the mind and body have a deep continuity between them; actually the mind and world have a deep continuity between them.


I should also note that the word 'emergent' shows up a lot, I think in a way that doesn't fall afoul of The Futility of Emergence [LW · GW]; they're not saying "ok, intelligence is emergent, we're done here", they're saying something more like "ok, intelligence emerges from many smaller-scale interactions", in a way that clarifies what sort of aggregation is going on (contra Eliezer, I think there are things that aren't well-described by 'emergent', and so it is actually adding some bits).

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-17T15:36:47.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 30: Relevance Realization Meets Dynamical Systems Theory

So last time we were taking a look at trying to progress in an attempt to give at least a plausible suggestion of a scientific theory of how we could explain relevance realization. One of the things we examined was the distinction between a theory of relevance and a theory of relevance realization. I made the argument that we cannot have a scientific theory of relevance precisely because of a lack of systematic import, but can have a theory of relevance realization. Then I gave you the analogy of that (which I'm building towards something stronger than an analogy of) Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and that which Darwin proposed a virtual engine that regulates the reproductive cycle so that the system constantly evolves the biological fitness of organisms to a constantly changing environment and then the analogy is: there is a virtual engine in the embodied, embedded brain (and why it's embodied will become clear in this lecture).

There is a virtual engine that regulates the sensory-motor loop so that my cognitive interactional fittedness is constantly being shaped, it's constantly evolving to deal with a constantly changing environment and what I in fact need is a system of constraints because I'm trying to balance between selective and enabling constraints to limit and zero in on relevant information. Then I was trying to argue that the way in which that operates, we saw what needs to be related to an autopoetic system and then the way the self-organization I suggested operates in terms of a design that you see many scales and we need a member of multi-scaleular theory in terms of your biological and cognitive organization. That's in terms of opponent processing.

We took a look at the opponent processing within the autonomous nervous system that is constantly (by the strong analogy) evolving your level of arousal to the environment: opposing goals but interrelated function.

Then I proposed to you that we could look for the kinds of properties that we're going to be talking about, the level at which we're going to be pitching a theory of relevance realization, which is the theory of bioeconomic properties that are operating not according to normativity of truth or validity, not logical normativity but logistical normativity. The two most important logistical norms I would propose to you are efficiency and resiliency, and then I made an argument that they would be susceptible to opponent processing precisely because they are in a trade-off relationship with each other and the if we could get a cognitive virtual engine that regulates the senosorimotor loop by systematically playing off selective logistical economic constraints on efficiency and enabling economic constraints on resiliency then we could give an explanation / a theory deeply analogous to Darwin's theory of evolution where cross individuals of biological fittedness we could give an account of the cognitive evolution within individuals cognition of their cognitive interactional fittedness, the way they are shaping the problem space so as to adaptively be well-fitted to achieving their interactional goals with the environment.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-18T11:46:50.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The overall picture makes somewhat sense but I have much trouble with the phrasings of the constraint details.

How do you know before hand whether a object of study is homogenous or not. Okay it seems plausible that "white objects" doesn't have much. But I think scientific study of swans should definetely be "in". Now does the existence of black swans means the homogenuity of the study object is ruined and study should be suspended? Gold might seem homogenous but this can be problematised. Somebody might think that "fools gold" is variety of gold. And even if gold is a specific amount of protons, there are lots of isotopes covered by it. Gold atoms can be in a variety of electronal excitement states. Their cores can be in excitement states that can relax into gamma ray emissions. That seems very heterogenous and the combining factor can seem a lot like being identical to the selection factor, you can only say that white things are white but likewise you can only say that gold things are gold (electronal excitements claims will be crap, isotopes claims will be crap etc).

If money is a attributed thing and attributive properties make for non-scientific use then does that make economics not be a scientific study in so far as it explores money?

The analog with evolution does clear it a fair bit. Darwin might have sough out for a statement like "To be fit is to be tall" with main focus on what property beside tall might make the statement actually true. But what the end result was was not a statement with that kind of structure.

I am starting to get a feel that like evolution enables (more) quantified husbandry, a theory of intelligence enables one to build AGI. Previously I have understood why AGI would be powerful but I guess with this line of reasoning the importance of understanding the theory of intelligence seems like the more pertient one. Even if we don't have it yet, its place in culture would be similar to relativity or evolution.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-24T16:18:21.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 13: Buddhism and Parasitic Processing

Last time we finished our look at the Axial Revolution in India. We took a look at what was going on in the Buddha's state of enlightenment. We took a look at some of the cognitive science in such awakening experiences and then we moved to interpret some of the Buddha's pronouncements, following the sage advice of Batchelor, trying to get beyond interpreting his pronouncements as propositions to be believed and instead understand them as provocations so that we may enact enlightenment.

That means enacting the threat that we are facing, and then enacting the psychotechnologies that can respond to it. We took a look at this in terms of ideas of parasitic processing, reciprocal narrowing, addiction (the opposite of anagogic acceleration!), and creating a counter-active dynamical system, the Eightfold Path, for successfully dealing with parasitic processing.

So we saw that these higher states of consciousness can bring about transformations that alleviate modal confusion, parasitic processing, reciprocal narrowing, many of the ways in which we fundamentally lose our agency in the world in a self-deception and self-destructive manner.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-24T16:22:37.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was a very short summary, but I think both things it brings up are key:

1. Things like Buddhism were not 'belief systems' (which Vervaeke calls a 'post-Christian' way of looking at it) and instead were practices. Like, you could imagine people of the future trying to understand football propositionally, and they sort of could, but it's mostly not about the propositions, for the athletes or the spectators. It's about enacting the football game. They were transformative practices--you should be able to see the difference between someone before Buddhism and after it (at least if they did it right).

2. The in-depth look at a problem that Buddhism was trying to be a solution to (parasitic processing).

Plato tells us a story about anagoge; Buddhism tells a story about its opposite, and how to avoid that.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-19T17:58:57.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 10: Consciousness

Last time we were discussing the Axial Age within ancient India and we were focusing in on a pivotal figure of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and we had been talking about his particular story. We talked about the two modes of being that were being represented in his story of leaving the palace: the having mode and the being mode. We talked about modal confusion and about overcoming it.

We followed him to where he's sitting under the Bodhi tree and he achieves a deep kind of realization, a deep state of enlightenment. Along the way, we had discussed what mindfulness is, how mindfulness operates through attentional scaling and how it can increase your cognitive flexibility, your capacity for insight, and then we were trying to draw this all together with some cognitive science discussion of what it is to experience enlightenment.

Now I'm not offering right now a complete account or anything like a comprehensive theory of enlightenment; we're gonna be slowly working towards that as we move through this lecture series, but I do want to get into and can continue the discussion of these higher states of consciousness.

So if you remember they're very problematic, but that they're at the core of many of the Axial Age world religions and foundational philosophies. This is the idea that people have an alternative state of consciousness that they regard as somehow more real than their everyday state of consciousness, and that's problematic precisely because we tend to judge realness by how well we get an overall coherence in our intelligibility (how we're making sense of things) but in these altered states that are very different from our everyday consciousness and therefore do not cohere with it, people do the alternative. Instead of rejecting it the way we reject dreaming (for example) because it doesn't cohere with our everyday experience, people reject the everyday experience as illusory and they say that this state of consciousness somehow gives them an improved access to reality. As you remember, as we've been going through the Axial Age Revolution and the sense of wisdom and meaning that is attended upon it, this ability to transcend through illusion and get connected to what is more real is central to what wisdom means and having some deep sense of connectedness to reality is also central to what it is to regard one's life as authentically meaningful in some fashion.

Replies from: Spiracular, Vaniver
comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-21T23:22:13.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A question:

What are some of the metrics people use, to judge whether something felt "real?" What are some metrics used to resolve fork-conflicts, between different ways of making sense of the world?

What does it mean, when these are different, and how do you resolve that conflict?

(A few example conflicts: A dream that is obviously not self-consistent, but still makes useful predictions. A vivid memory you have, that none of your friends can recall. A high-confidence intuitive prediction you could make whose certainty colors your perception, but which others insist is based on invalid starting premises.)

Replies from: Spiracular
comment by Spiracular · 2021-03-21T23:28:42.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A bit of context: I ended up with an odd connection between the way he described a "Realness-gauging heuristic," and how Blockchain works, that I wanted to share. This eventually led to the question bubbling up.

Vervaeke mentioned that a problem with some Higher State of Consciousness (HSC) experiences is that some people experience an "Axial Revolution in miniature," and decide that the real world is the dream, and their experience in the altered state was the reality. (Which they usually feel a need to return to, due to what he dubbed a "Platonic meta-drive" towards realness.)

Usually, with altered states (ex: literal dreaming), one ends up treating the altered state as a dream-like subjective experience, and understand your waking-life as reality. In these cases, this seems to get flipped.

To paraphrase Vervaeke...

Realness is the pattern of intelligibility with the widest, richest scope. It makes the most sense of your experience; your beliefs, your memories, etc.

The way I interpret this is that one of the common heuristics to ascertain "realness" is to search for the most extensive, highest-continuity, or most vividly experienced comprehension algorithm that you've ever built.

This calls faintly to mind fork-resolution in blockchains.

For the most part, blockchains branch constantly, but by design turn whatever is the longest and most-developed legal branch into the canonical one*. This is not purely continuous, since this is not always the same chain over time; one can overtake another. As long as it's the the longest, it becomes the "valid" one.

While this is one of the simplest fork-resolution metics to explain, it is not the only one.

Other varieties of forking (ex: a git repo for a software package) may use other canonicity-resolution heuristics. Here's a very common one: for a lot of projects, the most-built one is called an "Alpha" while the canonical version numbers are reserved for branches deemed debugged or "sufficiently stable."

(It is also sometimes possible to provide an avenue for re-integrating or otherwise feeding an off-branch to a main one (ex: uncles), but this can get complicated rather quickly.)

* With the notable exception of hard-forks: a rare event, where there is a social move to quash the validity of a chain in which a substantial misuse has occurred. Coming up with similar cases in history or social reality is left as an exercise for the reader.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-19T18:56:37.684Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the things that impressed me a lot about Vervaeke in this episode was naming my crux and meeting it. Like I talk about in Steelmanning Divination [LW · GW], often I've written off something for good reasons, and then come across a statement of the thing that says "yes, it runs afoul of X and Y, but even knowing that I think you should look at Z," and this is a pretty compelling reason to look at Z!

So Vervaeke is familiar with dreams, and expects his audience to be familiar with dreams. Your sense of how much things cohere can be hacked! I realized this as the result of direct experience many years ago, as presumably have most people, and so any claim of states of consciousness that are more in touch with reality than the default state of consciousness, rather than less in touch with it, has a high bar of evidence to clear. The default presumption should be "how are you sure it isn't just hacking your sense of how much things cohere?"

Vervaeke is also familiar with the unreliability of the propositional knowledge that comes out of these experiences. Some people see God while high, other people see the absence of God while high. Surely this means it's not a reliable source of knowledge. Contrast to fictional situations; if the DMT entities could in fact factor large numbers, this would be very compelling evidence about them! Or in the world of Control, people in the Astral Realm see a black pyramid, in a way that makes the propositional knowledge gained there reliable.

So Vervaeke's story is: these mystical experiences are not about propositional knowledge.

People will say varied metaphysical claims. What's changing is not the content; not this or that piece of knowledge. What's changing is your functioning, you're not gaining knowledge you're gaining wisdom. You're gaining skills and sensibilities and sensitivities of significance landscaping that radically transform your existential mode. That is why, for example, that the Buddha famously refused to answer metaphysical questions about Nirvana / about enlightenment, because that's not the point. That's not what this is about. This is not about getting supra-scientific knowledge, this is about getting extraordinary wisdom and transformation.

This seems pretty promising to me as an account (tho it's obviously not complete). Dreams might be random soup, but if I realize an error in my thinking because of a dream and that realization persists when I'm sober, and stands up to conversations with friends, then I can be pretty confident that I was in fact making a mistake before and the dream gave me whatever insight I needed to fix it. There might be some very deep mistakes that I'm making, such that I need very vivid dreams to fix them. see Mental Mountains [LW · GW] for discussion along these lines.

But this is going a step further than that. Often people who wake up from a dream long to return to the dream once sober. I'm not sure how many would actually prefer a dream world to the real world, this is a common enough trope that I suspect 'many'. From Inception:

Elderly Bald Man : [towards Cobb] No. They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise, son?

As well, there's an old point in AI alignment that, well, things that change your utility function are to be avoided by default. "Significance landscaping" is, essentially, the utility function; if I'm going to change that, I pretty clearly want to not change it randomly. Taking heroin, for example, would change my significance landscaping to make heroin much more significant to me. This seems like a bad move, and so I don't. So in order to think this mystical experiences are better to have than not have, the connection to wisdom needs to developed.

[And also the line I've been bringing up so far--where if wisdom is choosing the 'spiritual realm' over the 'secular realm', then that's actually a mistake if there's just a secular realm--needs to be addressed. This is the 'collapse of religion' in miniature--if we used to use religion to get people to get over their irrationalities with the carrot of heaven, but people have now realized that heaven isn't real and so the carrot is a trick, well, we still need some way to get people to get over their irrationalities, to the extent that's a thing that's good to do!]

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, Yoav Ravid
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-04-19T18:21:42.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So Vervaeke is familiar with dreams, and expects his audience to be familiar with dreams. Your sense of how much things cohere can be hacked! I realized this as the result of direct experience many years ago, as presumably have most people, and so any claim of states of consciousness that are more in touch with reality than the default state of consciousness, rather than less in touch with it, has a high bar of evidence to clear. The default presumption should be "how are you sure it isn't just hacking your sense of how much things cohere?"

Doesn't detract from your point, but I find it interesting that you interpreted dreams as evidence in this direction rather than the opposite. After all, when we are awake, we know we are awake, and correctly feel that our reality is more coherent and true than dreams are. The opposite isn't true: if we realize we're dreaming, we typically also realize that the content isn't true; we don't end up thinking that dreams are actually more true that reality is. Rather, finding dreams to be coherent requires us to not realize we're dreaming.

So feels like someone could just as easily have generalized this into saying "if there's an alternate state that on an examination feels more true than ordinary wakefulness does, then it's likely to actually be more true, in the same way as ordinary wakefulness both feels and is more true than dreams are".

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-19T19:10:33.505Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the things that impressed me a lot about Vervaeke in this episode was naming my crux and meeting it. Like I talk about in Steelmanning Divination [LW · GW], often I've written off something for good reasons, and then come across a statement of the thing that says "yes, it runs afoul of X and Y, but even knowing that I think you should look at Z," and this is a pretty compelling reason to look at Z!

Yes I also noticed that with Vervaeke. He would often start talking about something that sounds crackpot-ish or like straight up bullshit, but then immediately mention my objection and go on to talk sense. Last episode had an example of that with "Quantum Change", which is something i wouldn't even bother listening to, but he immediately criticized the name and said that the theory is good in spite of it, so I was open to hearing it out.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-15T15:24:00.682Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 6: Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution

So last time we began out discussion of Aristotle and how he has contributed significantly to our understanding of meaning and wisdom. We talked about how Aristotle was centrally concerned with something that he thought Plato didn't give an adequate enough account of: change. Importantly, Aristotle's term for change is properly understood in terms of growth and development.

We talked about how much your sense of growth and development is constitutive of finding your life to be meaningful. Aristotle understood that development in terms of making use of Plato's ideas of eidos--form, the structural functional organization--and then what's happening in change and in development is that something is being informed. In particular, something like wood, which has the potential to be a table or chair, and when it has the correct structural functional organization then the wood starts to act like a table or starts to act like a chair. When you inform some potential, it gets actualized into a particular thing, and so change is the actualizing of potential via information.

In order to better understand that, we leapt ahead to look at a current account of growth and development that was directly inspired by Aristotle: Alicia Juarrero's work. We went through the discussion of what a dynamical system is and how we can use it to understand growth and development in terms of the idea of a virtual engine.

We then returned and used that language to better understand Aristotle's idea about wisdom as the cultivation of character, where wisdom is to create a virtual engine and there's a deep connection between being a virtual engine and the cultivation of virtues. Wisdom is the cultivation of a virtual engine, a character that regulates your self-development, in fact your self-making, so that you can actualize your potential. You can live up to your potential. What does living up to that potential mean?

It means moving through that hierarchy that we talked about last time; the hierarchy of actualization from the mere plant to the animate thing to the mental thing to the rational thing. So to be wise--to live up to your potential--is to cultivate a character that most helps you realize your capacity for rational self-reflection, your capacity to appropriate and take charge of your ability to engage in self-actualization, self-realization, and to do so in a way that fulfills the potential of your humanity. That you most realize, reveal, actualize the characteristics that make us uniquely human. 

Foolishness is to have not properly cultivated your character so even when you have the correct set of beliefs--you believe that you should not do something, you will still fall prey to akrasia because you have not cultivated adequate enough character.

Then I challenged you in two ways: I challenged you to try to reanimate and deepen these terms that we use everyday to talk about how meaningful our lives are--terms of growth and development, actualizing ourselves, and living up to our potential--to deeper those terms by returning and reflecting upon them using Aristotle but also a Socratic challenge via Aristotle: what are you doing to cultivate your character? How much time are you dedicating to it? Since it now reasonable given this argument that it plays a significant role in how meaningful your life is, how much time have you devoted? How much time do you regularly devote to it?

Replies from: Harry Taussig
comment by Harry Taussig · 2021-05-15T21:23:28.840Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like and agree with the discussion of cultivating character. The stronger and wiser our character, the more we will act in accordance to what is "right" and the more we can bring about positive experiences for ourselves and others. 

But as I see it, the ultimate goal is better experiences for conscious creatures. So I am skeptical of the goal of living up to our potential by striving after what makes us most human. I think such a virtue could only be derived from how it may lead to better lives for living things (which I think it would as Aristotle defines it). But similarly it would not necessarily be good for the world if our first human ancestors 200,000 years ago all lived up to strictly what made them most human. The goal of what makes us uniquely human seems interesting, but beside the point.  

I also think that we tend to find cultivating our character meaningful, but there's no need for this secondary goal to then decide to cultivate your own character.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-13T15:19:05.930Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 49: Corbin and Jung

So last time we looked in depth at Corbin and Jung and tried to draw very deeply the notion of the relationship to the sacred second self. I launched into a sort of mutual criticism between Corbin and Jung and brought in some Buber along the way.

The summary at the beginning of the next episode pretty quickly shifts to new material, so here's the key quote according to me:

Freud has a Newtonian machine hydraulic model of the psyche. Jung ultimately rejects that; Jung replaces the hydraulic metaphor with an organic metaphor. He sees the psyche as a self-organizing dynamical system, ultimately as an autopoetic being, so he sees the psyche as going through a complex process of self-organization, and that you have to understand individuation as this kind of organic self-organizing process that you neither make nor receive but you participate in.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-12T15:39:18.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 48: Corbin and the Divine Double

So last time we followed Heidegger into the depths, where we encountered Eckhart and this non-teleological relatiosnhip to the play of being. That led us very directly into Corbin, and Corbin's core argument that gnosis (as we've been using it), the ability to engage in this serious play, relates centrally to the imagination. 

But Corbin is making use of this term in a new way; he makes a distinction between the imaginary (which is how we typically use the word "the imagination" and mental images in my head that are only subjection and have no objective reality) and the imaginal (which mediates between the abstract intelligible world and the concrete sensible world, and transjects between the subjective and the objective). All this mediation is not done statically, but a mutual affordance is done, and an ongoing transformative transframing, and that the symbol captures all of this.

Then I wanted to bring out Corbin's core symbol, and it's a core symbol that relates directly to gnosis. Because in gnosis (transformative participatory knowing), and this goes to the heart of Heidegger's notion of design, the being whose being is in question. We have to see self-knowledge and knowledge of the world as inextricably bound up together in order to do that; we are purusing Corbin's central symbol, the angel.

Which, of course, is immediately off-putting to many people including myself. But I've been trying to get a way of articulating how Corbin is incorporating both Heidegger and Persian Sufism, Neoplatonic Sufism into this understanding of the symbol, and I recommend that we take a look at the historical work showing how throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and up and through the Hellenistic period and beyond, up until about the 5th century of the common era, there's the pursuit of the divine double. The idea is one that is deeply transgressive of our cultural cognitive grammar of decadent Romanticism, where we are born with our true self that merely needs to express itself (a la Rousseau), and that the core virtue is authenticity, which is being true to the true self that you have, that you possess. Rather than, for example, a Socratic model in which the true self is something towards which you are constantly aspiring.

The transgressive mythology is that the self that I have now is not my true self. My true self is my divine double; this is something that is superlative to me, it is bound to me, it is my double. It is bound to me but is is superlative to me; it is both me and not me. It's me as I'm meant to be, as I should be, and that the existential project is not one of expressing a self that you have but of transcending to become a self that is ecstatically ahead of you in an important way.

Then I pointed out that for many of you this would still be "okay, I get the transgression, but I still find this notion of a divine double unpalatable." Maybe for some of you you don't, but nevertheless I think there's something important to asking the question "why did so many people for so long believe in this aspirational process?". This takes us back into work that was core to the discussion I made about gnosis, and it has a resounding impact at various places throughout this series, which is L.A. Paul's work on transformative experience, and then somebody who's from the same school, influenced by Paul while having a different view as Paul, her transformations are more like insight: Agnes Callard's notion of aspiration is much more developmental, but I argue they can be (I think) readily reconciled together if you see development as a linked sequence of insights to bring about qualitative change in your competence.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-12T04:03:09.037Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 47: Heidegger

So last time we were trying to understand Heidegger's work as a prophet (in the Old Testament sense) of the meaning crisis. We took a look at this notion of "the thing beyond itself" and "realness" as simultaneously the shining into our framing and the withdrawing beyond our framing in a deeply interpenetrating manner. We took a look at this deeper notion of truth--not truth as correctness, but truth as aletheia, that which grounds the agent-arena relationship in attunement and allows us the potential to remember being by getting into an attunement with its simultaneous disclosure and withdrawal.

But we can forget that; we can get into a profound kind of modal confusion and this is the history of metaphysics as the emergence of nihilism. We can forget the being mode, we can get trapped into the having mode in which the metaphysics is a propositional project of trying to just use truth as correctness, and we misunderstand being as a particular being. We try to capture the unlimitedness aspect of being, but we only do it at the limit (which Heidegger is deeply critical of). So we understand being in terms of a Supreme Being, a being at the limit, and beyond the limit. This is ontotheology; we understand God as the Supreme Being and this is deeply enmeshed (for Heidegger) with nihilism, because this ontotheology, this version of theology from classical traditional theism, this way of understanding being gets us into the deep forgetfulness and modal confusion that is the hallmark of nihilism.

Of course, we could perhaps remember the being mode, and this is what Corbin (following Heidegger) talks about as gnosis.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-12T03:55:26.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 46: Conclusion and the Prophets of the Meaning Crisis

Last time I finished the discussion of wisdom and connected it to enlightenment and argued for the wise cultivation of enlightenment as our deepest kind of existential response to the meaning crisis, a way in which we can awaken from the meaning crisis. I then wanted to put that scientific model of spirituality (for lack of a better phrase) into discourse with some of the central prophets of the meaning crisis. I'm using the word prophet as it's used in the Old Testament; I'm talking about individuals who were crucial for articulating the advent and helping to propose or promise a response to the meaning crisis. I put a diagram on the board in which Heidegger played a central role; there's many connections in there that I'll point out that I will not be able to fully address, because the people are there insofar as they help us articulate the response, not to be examined for their own sake.

I mentioned the work of Nishida and Nishitani in the Kyoto School; I will talk briefly about Nishitani here but I won't be able to go into that in depth. I do intend to pursue this later in another series I'm putting together (I'm putting together a couple of series to follow this one) and I would like to do a series that will include work on the Kyoto School that I've entitled The God Beyond God, in which we look at all of these great non-theistic thinkers within both Eastern and Western traditions, and things like the Kyoto School that tried to bridge between them. So I will have to neglect (to some degree) the Kyoto School in this series but I promise to follow it up more deeply in another series.

The first 45 lectures have been, to some extent, "how did we get here, and where is here anyway?", and these remaining five lectures are something like "what do other people think about being here?" This episode mostly touches on Husserl (who doesn't really make it into the summary at the beginning of the next episode).

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-07T17:48:27.440Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 45: The Nature of Wisdom

So last time I tried to draw together all the other theories (I don't just mean the psychological theories, although they're the most salient right now, but also the philosophical theories) into an account of wisdom. I presented a model to you, a theory of wisdom developed by myself and Leo Ferraro from 2013, in which we are enhancing inferential processing through active open-mindedness, enhancing insightful processing through mindfulness, we're enhancing the capacity for internalization by internalizing the sage, and cultivating sophrosyne by our salience landscape naturally organizing away from self-deception and tempts us towards the truth (or at least what's true, good, and perhaps beautiful; that's perhaps a better way of putting it).

That coordinates the propositional knowing associated with inference, the procedural knowing associated with insight, the perspectival knowing associated with internalization together. That is directed towards realizing sophrosyne and that can help cultivate a more moral existence, the connection to virtue, mastery (in the sense of coping and caring), and meaning in life.

Of course, one of the criticisms I made was that the notion of meaning in life there was too simplistic, and it needs to be integrated with a much more developed account that's already in the literature. I'm contributing to that by work I'm doing with others on meaning in life; I pointed out that the Vervaeke-Ferraro model is missing participatory knowing, it's missing (or at least I think it misrepresents /misaligns) the relationship between the kinds of knowing. Understanding is missing, transformative experiences are missing, aspiration is missing, gnosis is missing, so all of these things need to be deeply integrated together.

I tried to suggest the beginnings of an account of how we turn basic understanding, which is to grasp the relevance of our knowledge, into profound understanding by integrating the account of understanding with the account of possibilities, so that profound understanding is the generation of plausibility by having convergence onto a contextually sensitive optimal grip that is transformatively transferrable in a highly effective manner in many different problem finding, formulating, and solving in many different domains.

I also brought out the idea that in addition to inspiration (this is a term I'm giving for more sudden insight-laden transformative experience), you can have what Callard calls aspiration, that's more incremental, it still can't be solved in an inferential decision-theoretic fashion (she agrees with Paul on that). She does argue though (and I agree with this argument) that aspiration must be considered a form of rationality which she calls 'proleptic rationality' because you're going to get into a performative contradiction: if my aspiration for rationality and my love of wisdom are not themselves rational processes, I'm kind of in trouble in my model of rationality.

Given all of that philosophy, what's missing (as I argued) is an extensive psychology of aspiration. I know one of my colleagues Juensung Kim is working on exactly that problem, and he's of course doing it in connection with a psychology of wisdom. I did suggest to you that we could see one of Callard's ideas of how we do this: we create something that's double-faced (I argued, ultimately symbolic, having aspects of gnosis in it) that allows us to make the leap, even if it's an incremental one, from who we are now and what we value now to the place where I've acquired some new thing that I value for its own sake. We used the example of music appreciation.

I think the 'summary' portion of the next lecture goes out to about 8 minutes, but I'm cutting it off at about 5, in part because there's a lot of tying together / elaborating / concluding to it.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-06T15:47:03.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 44: Theories of Wisdom

Last time we finished up looking at Baltes and Saudinger and made some criticisms that led into important criticisms made by Monica Ardelt. Then we looked into Ardelt's theory and the way it brought in an important distinction about not just having a good theory of wisdom, but the process of becoming a wise person, and then the emphasis on 'what are the features of a wise person?' as opposed to 'what are some of the central claims made by a theory of wisdom?'. Then we talked about how Monika insightfully brings together the cognitive, the reflective, and the affective.

I pointed out how we've got relevance realization grasping the significance (at least the cognitive directly because of the invocation of Kekes). I would also point out that I think that's at least implicit in the reflective machinery, and there's deep potential connection there with both perspectival knowing and the cultivation of rationality (at least perspectival rationality), and the affective ties to agape (which I've already argued has very important connections to relevance realization). That afford Ardelt's theory a powerful way of connecting wisdom to meaning in life as something different from connecting wisdom to virtue, and that's a very important thing to do.

We still noted some criticisms, largely it's still a product theory, it doesn't have an independent account of foolishness and a processing theory of how one becomes wise. In that sense it's not picking up as well as it could the philosophical heritage given to us by people like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius and so on.

We then took a look at the theory of Sternberg, just an extremely pivotal figure in the cognitive science of wisdom. I pointed out his ideas about adopting, shaping, and selecting are clearly ideas about relevance realization; he invokes implicit processing, tacit knowledge you know in order to bring understanding in that intuitive grasping of the significance of information (I think that's what he's implying). We talked about how he involves a balancing of interests, and there's the intrapersonal (how you're connected to yourself), the interpersonal (how you're connected to other people), and the extrapersonal (how you're connected to the world). So that's (at least implicitly) important connections to meaning in life in the way we've been talking about throughout this course. He invokes balance throughout, and I tried to make a good case that you should see that as optimization and directly relevant therefore to accounts of optimization of processing that we discussed with connection to relevance realization.

There were some issues I had with Sternberg; the idea that all wise people, all of this machinery is directed towards the common good, that strikes me as anachronistic. I think a less contentious claim would be that it's directed towards virtue and meaning in life for oneself and others in some unspecified way. There was also the invocation of values as affecting or constraining the whole process; again it was unclear to me what this is. There's an ambiguity here, it could be the relatively trivial claim that the wise person is being regulated by normativity--you know, by considerations what's true and good and beautiful--and that would be definitional (and therefore relatively trivial) because wisdom is a normative term or it could be that specific values are being invoked here, but if that's the case they should be specifically stated and justified for why those ones are chosen, and explicitly explain how those specific values make an impact on specific aspects of the machinery. So that's all sort of missing and needs to be addressed. It's ultimately a product theory, not a process theory. Sternberg does have a theory of foolishness, but it's not independently generated and it doesn't really pick up on the centrality of seeing through illusion and into reality.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-05T15:48:26.798Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 43: Wisdom and Virtue

So last time we took a look at the theory of Schwartz and Sharpe, which was an important theory for linking wisdom to virtue and positive psychology. We saw the deep connections between wisdom and the cultivation and practice of virtue. We made some criticisms of Schwartz and Sharpe; I argued that they should include sophia and not just phronesis (if you remember those, they were invoking Aristotle's two notions of wisdom and giving priority to phronesis; I think you need, as Aristotle argued, both sophia and phronesis in order to be virtuous).

I also argued that I thought their attempt to explain phronesis with expertise was confused, and we should put that aside. We took from that some ideas about the developmental aspect (that's of course central to Aristotle; remember he brought the developmental dimension to wisdom, how much wisdom is becoming a virtuous person). I think other things are lacking in the theory, and we'll come back to that.

There wasn't much discussion about the connection between wisdom and meaning in life but we then passed to taking a look at a theory that took very seriously the connection between wisdom and virtue, and this is the seminal theory work of Baltes and Staudinger. We took a look at the idea of the meta-heuristics pragmatic for orchestrating mind and virtue in excellence. They talked about the fundamental pragmatics of life; I pointed out to you that a way of making sense conjointly of the invocation of meta-heuristics and both senses of pragmatics is the idea that this capacity for relevance realization (obviously, improved in some fundamental way). I think there's integral connections between wisdom and intelligence via the notion of rationality that we've already been developing together. 

Then we took a look at the five criteria: there were clear indications of propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, the contextualism I argued can best be seen as perspectival knowing, I argued against their notion of relativism and argued instead for humility and fallibilism (sorry, that was maybe too harsh; I think it's pretty clear that many of the seminal figures of wisdom, figures from the past, were not moral relativist or relativists in any way, so I strongly recommend replacing relativism with fallibilism and humility), and then finally the fifth criteria is that wisdom is applicable to domains in which there is uncertainty. Of course as I've already argued, a huge aspect of our life and our cognition (because of ill-definedness, combinatorial explosion, etc.) is strongly presupposing relevance realization.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-04T20:40:23.622Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 42: Intelligence, Rationality, and Wisdom

So last time we took a look at the work of Stanovich and ideas coming out of the rationality debate. I tried to explicate the notion of 'need for cognition', talked a little bit more about problem finding and the generation of a problem nexus, and then also the affective component of that: wonder and curiosity and sort of balancing them off together.

Then we looked more specifically at Stanovich's theory of foolishness, which he calls dysrationalia. We looked at the idea of dual processing (S1 and S2) and the idea that what makes you foolish is S1's functioning (that makes you leap to conclusions) interferes with the inferential processing of S2. You leap to conclusions inappropriately, and that's what causes you to be biased in your processing, self-deceptive, foolish, etc., and then what active open-mindedness does is it foregrounds S2 and protects it from undue interference from S1.

That's all very good in a theoretical context, but we took a look at the work of Jacobs and Teasdale and said: but in a therapeutic context the opposite is the case! What you need is you need that machinery of leaping to work well, and we took a look at the work of Baker-Sennett and Ceci showing that cognitive leaping is actually very powerfully predictive of insight and that's what you need in therapy. You need powerful kinds of insight to break you out of the ways in which you're confronting existential entrapment, inertia, and ignorance. You cannot infer your way through transformative, qualitative change.

So I proposed (and Teasdale has also independently proposed this) that we need a cognitive style that foregrounds S1 (puts us into a state for triggering insight) and tends to background and constraint S2's processing, and that's mindfulness. We have evidence that mindfulness facilitates insight and mindfulness is also increasingly being incorporated into therapeutic settings precisely for its capacity to generate cognitive flexibility and afford insight. So we're noticing is that because the relationship between S1 and S2 is opponent instead of adversarial, we're going to need some higher-order way of coordinating these two cognitive styles, active open-mindedness and mindfulness, so that we can optimize the enhancement in rationality of the relevance realization that is at the core of our intelligence.

Note this idea: that how you are relating to your intelligence and applying your intelligence to itself, the degree to which you problematize your own intelligence and try to improve it, we can see that as rationality. Then I suggested to you that when I do this, when I recursively and reflectively use my rationality to enhance and optimize my rationality, perhaps by enhancing the relationship between the component styles of mindfulness and active open-mindedness, then I'm moving towards wisdom.

We took a look at that and in connection with this we took a look at the work of Dweck, and again making the argument that the way you relate to your higher cognitive processes (your meaning-making problem-solving capacity, not just the intellectual or information processing) is deeply existential. We saw the work on mindset and that the way you identify with your intelligence, the way you're framing how you're identifying with your intelligence, has a tremendous impact on your need for cognition, your problem-solving, your behavior, your proclivity towards deception, self-deception, etc.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-04T21:03:30.801Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The main bit of this episode that stuck with me was the reframing of growth mindset (see SSC's commentary on it). Roughly, Vervaeke's story is that the growth mindset studies are impressive (I think he's a little too credulous but w/e), but also the evidence that intelligence (in the sense of IQ) is fixed is quite strong, and so having growth mindset about it is untenable. [If there's a way to turn effort into having a higher g, we haven't found it, despite lots of looking.] But when we split cognition into intelligence and rationality, it seems pretty obvious that it's possible to turn effort into increased rationality, and growth mindset seems quite appropriate there.

Replies from: habryka4
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-05-04T21:16:00.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

but also the evidence that intelligence (in the sense of IQ) is fixed is quite strong, and so having growth mindset about it is untenable.

Is this true? Having looked into it, it doesn't seem super true. Like, my guess is IQ is about as variable as competence measurements of most diverse skills. You can't easily run any "did this intervention increase IQ?" studies, because IQ-tests are highly game-able, so we don't actually have any specific studies of real interventions on this topic.

My current guess is that you can totally just increase IQ in a general sense, not many people do it because it requires deliberate practice, and I am kind of frustrated at everyone saying it's fixed. The retest correlation of IQ is only like 0.8 after 20 years! That's likely less than your retest correlation for basketball skills, or music instrument playing, or any of the other skills we think of as highly trainable. Of course, it's less clear how to train IQ since we have less obvious feedback mechanisms, but I just don't get where this myth of IQ being unchangeable comes from. We've even seen massive changes in population-wide IQ studies that correlate heavily with educational interventions in the form of the Flynn effect. 

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-05T16:20:47.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

because IQ-tests are highly game-able

I'm not sure which claim this is, but I think in general the ability to game IQ tests is what they're trying to test. [Obviously tests that cover more subskills will be more robust than tests that cover fewer subskills, performance on test day can be impacted by various negative factors that some people are more able to avoid than others, etc., but I don't think this is that relevant for population-level comparisons.]

The retest correlation of IQ is only like 0.8 after 20 years! 

So, note that there are roughly three stages: childhood, early adulthood, and late adulthood. We know of lots of interventions that increase childhood IQ, and also of the 'fadeout' effect that the effect of those interventions are short-lived. I don't think there are that many that reliably affect adult IQ, and what we're interested in is the retest correlation of IQ among adults.

In adulthood, things definitely change: generally for the worse. People make a big distinction between 'fluid intelligence' and 'crystallized intelligence', where fluid intelligence declines with age and crystallized intelligence increases (older people learn more slowly but know more facts and have more skills). What would be interesting (to me, at least) are increases (or slower decreases) on non-age-adjusted IQ scores. Variability on 20-year retest correlation could pretty easily be caused by aging more or less slowly than one's cohort.

That's almost certainly much less than your retest correlation for basketball skills

Hard to say, actually; I think the instantaneous retest correlation is higher for IQ tests than it is for basketball skill tests (according to a quick glance at some studies), and I haven't yet found tests applied before and after an intervention (like a semester on a basketball team or w/e). We could get a better sense of this by looking at Elo scores over time for chessplayers, perhaps? [Chess is widely seen as trainable, and yet also has major 'inborn' variation that should show up in the statistics over time.]

We've even seen massive changes in population-wide IQ studies that correlate heavily with educational interventions in the form of the Flynn effect. 

Lynn is pretty sure it's not just education, as children before they enter school show the same sorts of improvements. This could, of course, still have education as an indirect cause, where (previous) education is intervening on the parents, and I personally would be surprised if education had no impact here, but I think it's probably quite small (on fluid intelligence, at least).

Replies from: habryka4
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-05-05T17:48:52.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think there are that many that reliably affect adult IQ, and what we're interested in is the retest correlation of IQ among adults.

Yep. 0.8 is retest correlation among adults. Also, like, I don't know of any big studies that tried to increase adult IQ with anything that doesn't seem like it's just obviously going to fail. There are lots of "here is a cheap intervention we can run for $50 per participant", but those obviously don't work for any task that already has substantial training time invested in it, or covers a large battery of tests.

Lynn is pretty sure it's not just education, as children before they enter school show the same sorts of improvements.

Yep, definitely not just education. Also lots of other factors. 

Hard to say, actually; I think the instantaneous retest correlation is higher for IQ tests than it is for basketball skill tests (according to a quick glance at some studies), and I haven't yet found tests applied before and after an intervention (like a semester on a basketball team or w/e).

One of the problems here is that IQ is age-normalized. In absolute terms you are actually almost always seeing very substantial subcomponent drift and changes, the way they change just tend to be correlated among different individuals (i.e. people go through changing in similar ways at the same age). This exaggerates any retest-correlations compared to a thing like a basketball test, which wouldn't be age-normalized.

Replies from: habryka4, Vaniver
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-05-05T20:31:49.421Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To make my epistemic state here a bit more clear: I do think IQ is clearly less trainable than much narrower skills like "how many numbers can you memorize in a row?". But I don't think IQ is less trainable than any other set of complicated skills like "programming skill" or "architecture design" skill. 

My current guess is that if you control for people who know how to program and you run a research program with about as much sophistication as current IQ studies on "can we improve people's programming skills" you would find results that are about as convincing saying "no, you can't improve people's programming skill". But this seems pretty dumb to me. We know of many groups that have substantially outperformed other groups in programming skill, and my inside-view here totally outweighs the relatively weak outside-view from the mediocre studies we are running. I also bet you would find that programming skill is really highly heritable (probably more heritable than IQ), and then people would go around saying that programming skill is genetic and can't be changed, because everyone keeps confusing heritability with genetics and it's terrible. 

This doesn't mean increasing programming skill is easy. It actually seems kind of hard, but it also doesn't seem impossible, and from the perspective of a private individual "getting better at programming" is a totally reasonable thing to do, even if "make a large group of people much better at programming" is a really hard thing to do that I don't have a ton of traction on. I feel similarly about IQ. "Getting better at whatever IQ tests are measuring" is a pretty reasonable thing to do. "Design a large scale scalable intervention that makes everyone much better" is much harder and I have much less traction on that.

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-05-05T20:38:09.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think laying out your thoughts on this would make a great top-level post. Starting from your comments here and then adding a bit more detail.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-05T20:32:29.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. 0.8 is retest correlation among adults.

Do you happen to remember the source for this? I'm having trouble finding any studies that seem to bear directly on the question.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-03T16:53:42.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 41: What is Rationality?

So last time we were taking an in-depth look at the work of Stanovich and rationality because we are building towards an account of wisdom, because that is deeply intertwined with the cultivation of enlightenment and (of course) with the cultivation of meaning. 

We noted that rationality is an existential issue. It's not just a matter of how we're processing information, it's something that's constitutive of our identity in important ways and our mode of being in the world (we'll come back to that again).

One of the core things we saw as we took a look at the rationality debate (in which Stanovich's work was situated) is that debate showed us a couple of important things: it showed us that rationality does not equal logicality and it does not equal intelligence, that debate also showed us that we need multiple competencies when we're talking about rationality. We need an inferential competency and we need an independent competency of control and then I propose to you how we could understand what that competency is, and what the normative theory is acting upon it: namely, insight / good problem formulation.

We then moved into what Stanovich saw as the missing pieces. If intelligence doesn't give us rationality, what's the missing pieces?  Two missing pieces, they overlap in some important ways: one is the notion he calls mindware (what I've called psychotechnology), the other is a cognitive style that he talked about, active open-mindedness (which he gets from Jonathan Baron [LW · GW]) and this is the idea that what you should do is cultivate a sensitivity and an ongoing awareness of the presence and effect of cognitive biases in your cognitive behavior / your cognitive life, and to actively counteract them.

I pointed out that, unlike Stanovich who doesn't emphasize this as much, Jonathan Baron (who's the originator of this idea as a constitutive feature of rationality) points out that you can't do that too much, because if you try to override too many of your cognitive biases you of course will also be overriding them in their functioning as heuristics that help you avoid combinatorial explosions. So getting an optimal form of active open-mindedness rather than a maximal form of it is crucial to rationality. 

I want to just briefly stop here and be a little bit more precise about how I want to use this term. I've been using it throughout and I basically defined it by example and then through exemplification but I want to be a little bit clearer about it because it's going to be relevant as we go forward and talk about wisdom. So here's the definition I want to offer to try to clarify what I mean and how I'm using the term psychotechnology. As I said, I don't claim to be the originator of this idea but I am claiming that this is the particular slant I'm taking on the idea of psychotechnology. "The psychotechnology is a socially generated and standardized way of formatting, manipulating, and enhancing information processing that's readily internalizable into human cognition and that can be applied in a domain-general manner." That's crucial--it must extend and empower cognition in some reliable and extensive manner and be highly generalizable among people. Prototypical instances are literacy, numeracy, and graphing. So I just want to make it very clear that it's not just anything we use mentally will count as a psychotechnology, so the cognitive style of active open-mindedness will probably make use of psychotechnologies in order to help track bias but obviously Stanovich means something much more comprehensive; he means a set of skills, psychotechnologies, sensibilities, and sensitivities that will help you in a domain-general manner; note and actively respond to the presence of cognitive bias.

We can then ask what is it about people that, if intelligence is insufficient for this, what is it about people that is predictive of them acquiring [active open-mindedness]? Now, this is learnable, and we talked about the need for cognition as being an important predictor. So this is the degree to which you are motivated to go out and look for problems, you're trying to find, formulate, and solve problems. So in that sense you are generating your own instances of learning and problem-solving in a quite directed and comprehensive manner.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-05-03T17:00:41.042Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A long summary (as is typical for 'multi-part' episodes; this is the second of three episodes on rationality, which is bridging to three episodes on wisdom). I think the rationality debate is mostly... old news, or something? It's nice to see the 'purely academic' version of it, but there aren't really any surprises, and Vervaeke is coming at it from a view that seems pretty close to "rationalists should win" to me. 

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-30T14:02:03.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 40: Wisdom and Rationality

So we are pursuing the cognitive science of wisdom because wisdom has always been associated with meaning from the Axial Revolution onward. Wisdom is also important for the cultivation of enlightenment (the response to the perennial problems), it's also playing a central role in being able to interpret our scientific worldview in a way that allows us to respond to the historical forces, and so wisdom is very important.

We took a look (and continue to look at) McKee and Barber, and we saw their convergence argument that at the core of wisdom is the systematic seeing through of illusion and into what's real, and this is very much like "as the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage", and then two other important aspects of it: that wisdom is much more with 'how you know' than 'what you know', which means how you come to know it and also how you interpret the knowledge, and that wisdom is therefore, in a related fashion, deeply perspectival and participatory, and that's why wisdom can be associated with an important form of pragmatic self-contradiction.

We then noted the connection with overcoming self-deception in a systematic fashion, and the emphasis of wisdom on the process rather than the products of knowing, and that both of those took us into the work of Stanovich. Because he famously argues that one of the hallmarks of rationality is valuing the process in addition to valuing the products of our cognition, and that took us also into the discussion of rationality.

Stanovich is a good bridge because for him, the notions of rationality and ameliorating foolishness overlap very strongly, and we got into this notion (which I've been sort of comprehensively arguing throughout this course) that rationality has to do with the reliable and systematic overcoming of self-deception and the potential affording of flourishing by some process of optimization of achieving our goals, with the caveat that as we try to optimize we often change the goals that we are pursuing, one reason being that we come to more and more appreciate the value of the process as opposed to just the end result of the process. So in order to pursue that and to deepen our notion of rationality and thereby deepen our notion of wisdom (and of course wisdom has been associated with rationality from the beginning, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle), we took a look at the rationality debate.

I gave you three examples of many possible examples, experimental results that seem to show reliably: that people acknowledge and accept the authority of certain standards, principles of how they should reason, and yet they reliably fail to meet those standards. So one possible interpretation of that (not the only interpretation) is that most people are irrational in nature. As I pointed out, because rationality is existential and not just sort of abstractly theoretical, concluding that people are irrational has important implications for their moral status, their political status, their legal status, even their developmental status. So this is what I keep meaning when I am saying rationality is deeply existential; it is not just theoretical.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-29T16:21:30.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 39: The Religion of No Religion

So last time I tried to make some tentative suggestions as to what this religion that's not a religion would look like, and how it can make use of an be integrated with an ecology of psychotechnologies for addressing the perennial problems and a cognitive-scientific worldview that can legitimate and situate the ecology of practices. Then I made some suggestions as to the relationship between credo and religio in our determination of our mythos and the issue of criterion-setting made again another argument for open-ended (in that sense gnostic) mythos, talked about a mythos that always puts the credo in service of the religio, and that is always directed towards the propositional being ultimately grounded in the participatory, and also affording the emergence up out of the participatory through the perspectival and procedural into the propositional.

I suggest some ways in which we might set up a way of engineering credo, something analogous to a wiki, and create a structure that is a distributed co-op structure facilitated by things like the internet. Again, I remind you I was not trying to offer anything definitive or set myself up in any kind of way; that is not what I want to do. I want to try to help facilitate the people who are already doing this so that they have ways of talking to each other, coordinating with each other, and facilitating each other's development and growth.

I then turned towards one of the culminating things we need to do taking up one of the deepest relationships that meaning has, the relationship between meaning and wisdom. We need wisdom because it's the meta-virtue for the virtues, and we need that in order to give the individual pole for the relationship with the collective creation and cultivation of the meta-psychotechnology for creating the ecology of psychotechnology. We also of course need wisdom before, during, and after the quest for enlightenment; the quest for a systematic and reliable response to the perennial problems.

I then proposed to look at the cognitive science of wisdom, and we did that by taking note of an important article that comes out after the first decade and a half of the resurgence of scientific interest in wisdom, and that's the article of McKee and Barber. They're doing something consonant with what we've been trying to do in this series; they're trying to (in a sense) salvage what we can from the philosophical theories, the legacy of the Axial Age of wisdom, and the psychological theories that were emerging at that time and then they set them into dialogue with each other, a process of reflective equilibrium trying to get a convergence between them. They argue that all of these theories (the philosophical and psychological theories) convergence on a central feature of wisdom, and then following work that I did with Leo Ferraro in 2013 we can sort of expand beyond the explicit thing to what we've also set alongside of their phrase.

So a central feature of wisdom is the systematic seeing through illusion and into reality (at least comparatively). So this, of course, is insight; a fundamental / systemic insight not just into a particular problem but into a family of problems. 

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-30T14:22:26.580Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So things are starting to come together.

In particular, I think this makes it a bit clearer on what he means by religio if it's explicitly contrasted with credo; differences in credo are primarily about different propositions that are asserted (i.e. you can tell what religion a person is by how they answer a multiple choice test), and differences in religio are more about different 'actions that are taken' in some broader way (i.e. you can tell what religion a person is by how they live their life).

In my understanding of Vervaeke's view, religions that used to be useful as worldviews and communities of practice for legitimating and encouraging individual growth fell apart (both in the sense that they are no longer seen as legitimate, and also I think because they are no longer doing the best at encouraging growth / anagoge). The first 'pseudoreligions' to form were the products of the overall historical trend towards systems and propositions: as Europe dispensed with the religio and kept the credo, we got a version of Christianity that dispensed with prayer and agape and kept around the doctrinal creeds and the crusades, to much suffering and regret.

So the thing that we need to do is restore the parts of religion focused on growth and improvement--not just individually, but also collectively. To the extent there are propositional beliefs, they are about facilitating the anagogic process rather than the ultimate end point.

Of course, a lot of this is how I think about rationality and Less Wrong and the associated community. Just like it might not make much sense to talk about 'bodybuilding enthusiasts' who don't build their bodies, it doesn't make much sense to talk about 'aspiring rationalists' who don't develop their habit of mind. There's a surrounding worldview that ascribes special importance to this--it's not just a hobby, and is much more like a 'way of life'. 

At CFAR workshops, one of the tips that we would often give people at the beginning was "we're going to teach you techniques, but the workshop isn't really about these specific skills; it's about the skill of developing techniques, of which these are examples," in a way that lines up exactly with Vervaeke's "meta-psychotechnology for the creating the ecology of psychotechnology."

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-27T16:14:31.157Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 37: Reverse Engineering Enlightenment, Part 2

So last time we were taking a look at the perennial problems that are endemic to us precisely because of the functioning and structuring and development of our adaptive religio. The very processes that make us intelligently adaptive also make us vulnerable to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior, and I propose to you that:

  • we can address parasitic processing with a counteractive dynamical system
  • we can address modal confusion by the cultivation of sati
  • we can address the reflectiveness gap by the the cultivation of flow
  • we can address absurdity by cultivating prajna
  • we can address anxiety by cultivating inner dialogue by internalizing the sage through a process of internalization and indwelling that allows us to identify with the sage
  • we can address the process of alienation through the cultivation of communitas

I mentioned to you some new sets of communal psychotechnologies that are emerging and people who are trying to develop thinking about how to make use of authentic relating, circling, or trying to break through our current cultural grammar to a form of authentic discourse and relating. So that's on offer.

We can respond to existential entrapment by the cultivation of gnosis, we can be empowered by a core capacity for realizing higher states of consciousness, so what you have is basically a higher state of consciousness that is empowering gnosis. That is of course sat within gnosis; as you remember I argued it has to be set within a proper ritual context. This is being used to cultivate and is being reflectively transformed by a counteractive dynamical system that is going to get you sets of practices for cultivating sati, cultivating flow, cultivating prajna, cultivating communitas, cultivating inner dialogue, etc.; when this is set in a wisdom framing so that comprehensively that person is developing interlocking sets of virtues for addressing self-deception and for affording self-optimization. This results in a reliable response, amelioration and alleviation of the perennial problems. 

I would say that's enlightenment, at least, you know, an enlightenment that I'm trying to reverse-engineer; the components can each ultimately be explained and understood by our best cognitive science. I believe I've given you reasons that we can rationally hope that what needs to be done is to still try to articulate wisdom from a scientific perspective, and of course that is one of the most exciting things that's happening right now, something that I am privileged to participate in.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-26T17:43:39.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 36: Religio/Perennial Problems/Reverse Engineering Enlightenment

So last time we were taking a look at a proposal that we could understand that which causes the experience of sacredness in terms of a transjective inexhaustibility, a kind of deep anagoge between the 'no-thing-ness' of your ever evolving relevance realization and its mysterious depths and the 'no-thing-ness' of a reality that is ultimately combinatorially explosive and dynamically changing itself.

We can acknowledge the important role of the symbolic, the way it helps us to engage and activate the primordial aspects of religio and go through processes of re-exaptation, housing new emergent abilities so that as we're opening up the world we are also opening up ourselves in response to that. But I cautioned against confusing (your own or, at times, our collective) indispensability with any claims of metaphysical necessity or an absolute essence. That was part of a larger critique that relevance can't have an absolute essence, and therefore we shouldn't think of the sacred ultimately as a supernaturally endowed absolutely essential form of relevance.

So I then proposed to you that part of what we saw the experience of sacredness doing was helping to facilitate the higher order relevance realization, the meta-realization between homing us against domicide (the meta-assimilation) but also causing us to confront the numinous (the meta-accomodation) and the sacred is doing that.

I also propose that we needed to look at this more deeply; we needed to look at how the sacred helps us address perennial problems. That took us into opening up and becoming a little bit more analytic about the meaning crisis. There's two components to the meaning crisis: there are the historical factors which we traced in detail at the beginning of the first half of the series and an issue that we now need to focus on: the perennial problems. In some sense the experience of sacredness, the attempt to activate, accentuate, accelerate, articulate, and appreciate religio should address our perennial problems.

The perennial problems are of course perennial because the very machinery of religio that makes us adaptive also makes us perpetually vulnerable to self-deceptive self-destructive behavior. Most cultures cultivate an ecology of psychotechnologies, typically in the form of a religion, for addressing the perennial problems but that set of psychotechnologies has to be fitted into a legitimizing and sustaining worldview. In some sense, the psychotechnologies have to be integrated with sacredness.

Of course, what's happening for us is (and we'll come back to this in more detail) the historical factors have undermined the possibility for us, undermined the experience of sacredness, all of the ways in which we can cultivate an ecology of psychotechnologies for enhancing religio because we do not have a worldview within which the project of meaning-making, its self-transcendence, the cultivation of wisdom, the affordance of higher states of consciousness, the realization of gnosis: we do not have a worldview that legitimates or encourages that, and so people are forced (as I said) to cobble together in a dangerously autodidactic fashion their own personal responses to perennial problems without traditions, guidance, communities, well worked out / vetted / developed sets of practices. So that means they're often bereft when they face the perennial problems.

So responding to the meaning crisis has two components to it and that's why I call it awakening from the meaning crisis, because it has not only the response of trying to rearticulate a new worldview in which the projects of enhancing religio again gets validation, is properly situated, encouraged, faciliated, legitimated, etc. but also we need to understand what the set of practices, the ecology of psychotechnology would look like that would allow us to address the perennial problems. I'm proposing that the scientific account of relevance realization and religio (that I've already tried to give you some allusions to that, we're going to come back to it full-force) will give us a way of articulating a worldview in which we can resituate meaning-making and of course the linchpin of that argument is the idea that at the core of the meaning-making is relevance realization and relevance realization can be given a naturalistic explanation; one that hopefully still does full justice to the experience of sacredness.

Replies from: Vaniver, Slider
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-26T18:19:36.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The bit about relevance not being 'absolute' or 'essential' reminds me of Excluding the Supernatural [LW · GW]; for a deity to be 'actually divine' instead of just 'really powerful' or w/e it needs to be intrinsically relevant. But, interestingly, I don't think this is a standard that's possible to hit, basically because of Vervaeke's critique!

For example, assume I set up hyper-Minecraft, where the villagers are basically emulated humans (and so able to think, do philosophy, etc.), and I sometimes log in and wander around the world, using my admin powers as I see fit. There's a way in which I am 'ontologically basic' from the perspective of those villagers--I'm a mental entity that's not reducible to within-universe nonmental entities. [And also I'm keyed into the laws of physics in a way that makes me immensely powerful, and so clearly relevant to their materialistic aims!]

But there's nothing stopping a Diogenes in this world from only asking me to just step out of their sunlight when I offer to grant them any wish. There's nothing stopping a Socrates from saying "sure, this Vaniver character can reshape the landscape at will, but actually being a god is about morality and truth instead of power."

Now, maybe it's a mistake for them to care about morality instead of power; maybe philosophy of this sort is selected against. But on whatever standard philosophy fails on, it can honestly report that it was aiming for a different standard. [Somehow this is reminding me of C.S. Lewis's claim that the most important sin is pride; basically, in this frame, the ability to choose something other than God's choice because of centering your standards instead of His standards.]

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-27T14:15:24.849Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you want to play the minecraft server as a torture simulator then the philosophers of the world would be correct in identiying the act as evil rather than givign you licence to be good by fiat of omnipotence.

As authors of books and such we could make it an utopia for the characters if we wished. Yet we find the world more compelling as a book if it has a world of partial misery. And I think this applies even for within the worlds perspective - activating god mode or easy mode could make the existence so structureless that it would be an absurd horror.

Strictly såpeaking a minecrafts servers cosmologist might come up with floating point rounding as an explanation for the peculiar structure of the Farlands. Strucure of C# or Java could be become the subject of their physics etc. Judging what is "not reducible" for an arbitrarily fine science is hard business. You are ontologically basic only relative to a pretty trivial ontology. And in a very real sense if their brain runs on silicon and yours runs on carbon you are on the same level ontologically ie the minecraft world is a real embedding and detail in the real world.

comment by Slider · 2021-04-27T13:15:50.366Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The property of "indispensible" smells a lot like a posibility claim. I think the arguments for inexhaustability and indispensibility can be applied backwards to evolution. Evolution never stops, there is no "final evolved form" of an organism. But you can be stuck as a crododile for millenia. It is not always the case that there is an optimization to be made. For indispensibility it means that most of the features of animals are subject to some selection pressure. If you deprive an animal an important feature it will be selected against that is part of machinery of natural selection. But there are parts that have neglible selection pressure which can undergo a lot of neutral drift. Just because the animal itself likes some part of its body doesn't mean it actually is subject to selection pressure (althought fetishing important features can easily turn life-promoting). And if you remove one feature then the selection pressure on the other parts goes up. If you think a certain religion is "indispensible" for you, if we forcefully take it away from you, you will graps at any remaning and will try to generate religio in order to ward of absurdity. An one migth succeed in staying sane.

It occurred to me that what is threatening in the meaning crisis is a bit nebolous to me. One understanding is that historical forces have promoted intelligence and have not promoted wisdom to the same degree making us on the balance less rational. So it could be also called the "impending fooldom". I guess I get that absurdity is not a nice feeling but when compared to death in evolution it is less clear how important avoiding that fail state is. There is an attempt to link it to being able to pursue goals. If we grow too fool then we do not attain our goals and don't even realise we didn't attain them, or cease to have goals in the first place.

A bit of an antonym way of understanding this I linked in my mind the persistence of the perennial problems and the adjective "eternal" in the Tome of Eternal Darkness (from the game cube game). It is always going to be there. The relevance realization is to be informed and aware of your structured and meaning in order to conciously direct them. The allure of magic is to be able to benefit from forces one doesn't understand. So any sufficiently understood method is a technology and any sufficiently clouded method is a magic (possibly with a "k"). Picking up the tome of eternal darkness, using letters one doesn't know, to spell words one doesn't know to effects one can't imagine is a dangerous business which is prone to make you mixed up in matters one doesn't understand and exceedingly drift out of ones control. I guess I am also remainded of the game Control which also features themes of dealing with edge phenomena (and it could be argued that it tries to be a 5th wall breaking game in that the relationship between Polaris and Candidate 7 tries to be an enactive analogy to the ends of triggering a psychological restructuring of the players ego)

The tome of eternal darkness works on powers that lower ones enlightnement level. Exposure to secrets of the world that make sane interactivity with the world hard (ie horror and madness). He referred to what he was trying to get at the history arc and I got the impression that our efforts are currently making us fools. Another interesting classification could be people that are of high wisdom but low intelligence and therefore fail to be rational (the superstitous?). The "algorithmical thinking" forces were probably a lot more constructive if those people were a bigger portion of the population.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-23T16:42:37.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 35: The Symbol, Sacredness, and the Sacred

So last time we were continuing our examination of the experience of sacredness (the Schirrmacher side of things) and I was trying to develop an account of what symbols are; at least, symbols insofar as they are distinct from signs. This is a way of trying to understand the role that symbols have in our understanding of sacredness.

So I was presenting to you the view that symbols are a participatory act, and that participation has a connection to the activation of a profound kind of metaphor. By activating that metaphor, we are reaching backwards through our exaptation and reactivating that material so that we can re-exapt our cognitive processes and re-experience, re-appreciate, re-see, re-understand some aspect of reality, and that re-exaptation makes the use of a symbol, a deeply participatory transformative thing that we do and that with a symbol we're activating all that reexaptive machinery in order to hold something in mind so that we can see more deeply into it, be more in contact with it.

Then I argued the point of that is ultimately to set up an anagogic expressway by which I am transformed so I can see through the symbol into reality, and so that reality can speak through the symbol to me, and that we get an angogic flow happening and I'm becoming deeply integrated, the world is become disclosed, and that mutual reciprocal realizing (feels deeply sort of like love), coupling to reality in a profound way. So symbols are in that sense designed to get me into a trajectory of transframing; they're designed to open up the world (in wonder) and also grow me so that I can be in that larger world.

That points to how symbols are ecstatic; they're participatory, they're integrative, they're complex, because they help to complexify me and disclose the complexity of the world in a coordinated fashion. Then I suggested to you that we understand symbols as mythos, that it's always a symbol and a story together and that the story points to the ritual and the ritual is also there because the mythos is always enacted if it's going to bring about the transformations that it wants to bring about (or that we want to use it to bring about). 

I think both of those are right--we can use mythos to activate, accelerate, articulate, and appreciate religio. Religio is inherently valuable to us so even that alone is going to be very valuable to us. In addition to the act of seriously playing, not only is it development of what we are, what we find intrinsically valuable (because it's constitutive of our ability to value anything else or anything we consider valuable because it's primordial), but relevance realization (which is at the heart of religio and I'm giving you an argument for that) is constituted to it, it is structured to function by being interested in itself, correcting itself, transcending itself, developing itself. So that's why we love the flow state; not only is it optimal in that it's getting us to be our best, we also find it to be an optimal experience because we're seriously playing with this intrinsically valuable machinery in a way that is constitutively intrinsically significant to us.

I propose that when we are using the symbol to get us to play with the machinery, the meta-assimilation the meta-accommodation of sacredness or at least the meta-assimilation, the meta-accommodation of the higher order relevance realization within sacredness, and that's what we deeply mean by the experience of sacredness.

Replies from: Slider, Yoav Ravid, Vaniver
comment by Slider · 2021-04-26T09:24:27.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that he might be getting at some different concept with "symbol" that I would get out of it. I kind of get that if you have a religion you might pave out a "learning curve" of insights and that the same objects would get resused at multiple levels. But what distinguishes a symbol from a non-symbol, can some symbols be better than others? (I think that "symbolic value" migth make sense in the sense of affording participatory transformation, but then symbolic value can vary)

The inextinguishablesness also seems a bit wonky. I get that if somebody reliably gets new and new insights it might make sense to treat it as ever-producing but I doubt whether they truly have this property. Like Plato is only finitely insightful, it seems plausible that one day when returing to the text it ceases to speak, that there would be diminishing returns or that the growth one gets from the reading is all of the readers insight and none of the writers. I am thinking how a river might be inexhaustible, it is hard to drink a river dry and because of the hydrocycle one can rely being able to drink daily. But weather patterns change and using the river to irrigate a too big of a field can actually dry up a river. If you have a water bottle with you then withholding from drinking means you get to drink more later. With a river spending more time drinking means more water total gotten.

Having a business that generates a profit can make for exponential growth. But that is a different thing than having infinite money. So in a similar sense "that one is above the line in transcendence" might be an important thing, but it is not a "I win" button.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-26T18:08:18.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your point about inexhaustibility rings true to me, and reminds me of a broader question about anagoge (for personal development), engineering (for technological development), and science (for understanding the physical world); is it actually an infinite staircase going up (or deeper, in the case of scientific theories), or is there 'completion' (in the sense that pretty quickly we'll be able to make the best possible spaceships, have the best possible wisdom, have the complete theory of everything, etc.)?

It feels really dangerous to have an orientation that presupposes growth, or puts all of the value on growth, in a universe that might actually be finite. But also it feels really dangerous to assume that you've grown all you can, and there's nothing more to do, when in fact you just don't see the next door!

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-23T18:52:55.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Verveake was losing me in these parts of the series (though I did finish it). His overuse of complex language makes it extremely hard to understand what he's talking about. And that also makes it hard to evaluate, use or further explain. 

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-23T16:59:59.941Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So some quick refreshers on earlier concepts: Vervaeke thinks that humans are evolved, and that means lots and lots of 'exaptation', where something originally created for purpose A turns out to also be useful for purpose B, and develops to satisfy both purposes. The tongue is an example, of originally being useful for moving stuff around in the mouth (lots of animals have tongues that can do that) but then also being useful for speech, rather than creating a new speech organ from scratch (few animals that have tongues capable of speech, and this actually seems like the limiting factor in getting dogs to talk with us, for example). 

But exaptation doesn't just happen with body parts, it also happens cognitively. The thing that Vervaeke thinks the symbol is doing is giving us access to the 'history' of the thing, in a way that reminds me of UtEB [LW · GW] and memory reconsolidation; rather than just going off the 'current sense of justice' or w/e the symbol of justice gives you a way to handle the parts of it and its justification all at once, making it easier to reflect on justice and change your mind about it / develop it in contact with more of your experience.

Anagoge is a sort of philosophical self-development / ascent towards the true/good.

Religio, is, uh, the parts of religion that relevance realization is related to? I'll figure out a better explanation at some point.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-21T15:52:07.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 33: The Spirituality of RR: Wonder/Awe/Mystery/Sacredness

So last time I tried to develop with you the side of the plausibility argument I'm making and tried to give an account of central features of human spirituality and to try not to use that term therefore in a vague indefinite way. I made an argument for how relevance realization can explain many of the facets that are found within the normal attribution of human spirituality and I proposed a term 'religio' to cover all of those aspects of spirituality that can be explained by the machinery of relevance realization.

Replies from: Yoav Ravid, Slider, Slider
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-21T16:18:34.614Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Religio is one of those terms that I never quite absorbed the meaning of and so was always a bit confused whenever he used it later on.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-21T23:45:44.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As this is a place where he defines it, it would seem that "Operating System" could be a close synonym.

I do think that the connotations of the word are quite far-fetched on what it is supposed to "technically mean"

comment by Slider · 2021-04-22T14:50:40.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a stricler for possibility claims. The part where he thinks that deducing that from the difficulty of getting a perspective on death to deducde that consioucness is immortal I think is a very good grounded critique and explanation what robs people the wrong way in traditional religiousness. However there was a claim "no matter what one tries one can't get a phenomenological perspective on being dead".

One of the edge cases is that there is a live action show Upload where the protagonist was hosting his own funeral. This bypasses some of the things one might or or talk about. Sure they are a conciousness that has "hereness and nowness", salience about who attends etc.  So in that sense it is not. Also being in a mainframe has a good chance of having qualitatively different religio when compared with a neuron brain. But it could being these sense of "what it feels to not be me", when you are a new person or a different kind of person then you can attain state that has epistemological value. Even with just biological brains it leaves the possibility of developing a multiplepersonality disorder in order to "kill" your starting personality. I guess this is partly  why the goodbyes are said to the friend near Mr Robots ending, continuing the story without the architect would make the analog transfer less. Also the question on the feelings that the Doctor of Doctor Who goes when regeneration is about to onset. Is it proper to be sad? What is being forfeit that makes sadness a proper emotion?

Part of the promise of "psychotechnologies" is to get more "perspectival knowledge" via "serious play". Does or does not partaking in those 3 afforementioned series as audience impact perspectival knowledge and is it different in a mattering way to the kinds of perspectival knowledges that are claimed to be impossible?

comment by Slider · 2021-04-21T23:53:32.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea of protecting against domicide seems to resonate with me with trying to live in a world that is essentially incompatible with ones neurotype.

What strikes me as odd that he is treating the threat as something that will offcourse be needed to defend against. I can understand that not defending against need for food will lead into starvation and cessation of biological burning. But so what if we are spiked by anxiety? He seems to treat it like an unviable mode of being. And by contrast I feel like "eh, learn to live with it rather than avoid it from occurring"

I have watched Dr K a bit and on need he will very quickly introduce the separation that whatever you are percieving can't be you. Which I guess in an atempt to use Lesswrongian lingo would be "what is on the map can't be the map" which I guess is just another aspect/iteration of "the map is not the territority".

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-20T12:34:46.614Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 32: RR in the Brain, Insight, and Consciousness

Last time, I suppose I probably taxes your attention quite a bit; I tried to keep it as accessible and jargon-free as possible but we got into some of the nitty-gritty of how we could potentially give a naturalistic explanation of relevance realization and see it potentially being implemented in terms of self-organizing criticality and small world network formation in the brain, and that that in turn could help us to understand general intelligence, insight, and a lot of the functionality (and I'm even arguing a lot of the phenomenological aspects) of consciousness.

That gives us reason to believe that we may be able to use this machinery to elegantly explain a lot of the central features of human spirituality. We've already seen that this relevance realization is transjective, it's about our fundamental connectedness: connectedness to the world, connectedness of mind and body together, connectedness to other people (we'll have to come back to that); that relevance realization is always deeply affective, that at the core of relevance realization is a caring that is integral to your cognitive commitment of your precious cognitive metabolic and temporal resources; that we can see a lot of the stuff that Heidegger was talking about when he was trying to get us back to this primordial sense of meaning in the transjectivity of relevance realization, and that that interpretation of Heidegger via Dreyfus and our being in the world.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-21T13:21:41.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All of them arrows. RR is in four places in that connected graph. The main critisim against nazism was that it was a conspiracy and I am being very weary of not letting the sensible bits let undue credence to the other bits.

Saying that there are 3 kinds of networks is like saying that there are 3 types of temperatures: cold, hot and temperate. Being unfair or uncharasteristic in the bits that I know makes it plausible that he gets the other areas taht the invokes wrong in a impactful way plausible. Sure one can't be the master of all the fields in order to get the connections between them, but to me is walking on way shakier ground than he thinks he is.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-19T17:14:10.860Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 31: Embodied-Embedded RR as Dynamical-Developmental GI

So last time we were taking a look at the centrality of relevance realization: how many processes central to our intelligence, possibly also to the functionality of our consciousness, presuppose / require / are dependent upon relevance realization. So we had gotten to a point where we saw how many things fed into this and then I made the argument that it is probably at some fundamental level a unified phenomena because it comports well with the phenomena of general intelligence which is a very robust and reliable finding about human beings and then I propose to you that what we need to do is two things: we need to try to give a naturalistic account of this and then show if we have naturalized this, can we then use it in an elegant manner to explain a lot of the central features of human spirituality?

I already indicated in the last lecture how some of that was already being strongly suggested. We got an account of self-transcendence that comes out of dynamic emergence that is being created by the ongoing complexification and this has to do with the very nature of relevance realization as this ongoing evolving fittedness of your sensorimotor loop to its environment under the virtual engineering of bioeconomic logistical constraints of efficiency that tend to compress and integrate and assimilate and resiliency that tend to particularize and differentiate. When those are happening in such a dynamically coupled and integrated fashion within an ongoing opponent processing, then you get complexification that produces self-transcendence. Of course, much more is needed.

Replies from: Richard_Kennaway, Slider
comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-04-21T14:08:22.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I cannot distinguish this from GPT-3. Is it just me?

Replies from: Vaniver, Yoav Ravid
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-21T18:10:44.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is one of the less-edited transcripts; I often try to change it from one long sentence, which is appropriate for talks, to many smaller sentences and paragraphs, which reads better online; also I try to delete false starts and so on. I've been busier and putting less time into the editing, so some of the quality decrease from previous summaries is me.

I'm also becoming less confident that his 'reminders at the beginning of the next lecture' are the right summaries to use; they're much more "ok, here's where we were, now let's keep going" instead of "here's the main change from the last lecture, now let's look at the next topic in order." 

[There's also a big inferential distance problem here, where he's built up some jargon and summarizes his points in that jargon, which (of course) does not make the points any easier to transfer. Like, this really isn't a substitute for the lectures yet!]

Replies from: Richard_Kennaway
comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-04-21T19:14:26.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I edited it, I'm not sure there would be anything left. :)

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-21T15:07:46.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I wanted to comment on that second paragraph being way overly complex, but didn't have much to say apart from that. Your description seems apt. I hope at least he knows what he's talking about with all these words. But in terms of communicating these ideas, that does not do the job. (And my memory is that I felt pretty much the same while watching the full lecture, even though i really like his idea of relevance realization)

comment by Slider · 2021-04-21T12:35:18.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The style starts to go from laid out presentation to more thinking aloud.

There are a lot of arrows going on, they have different kinds of meaning and there are two particularly ill-defined and handwavy horizontal lines.

The argument for G.I. and such "proving" that RR is unified doesn't really go througt for me. g-factor is formulated by picking questions which have correlations on having them correct over different participants. If Intelligence or RR was a scattered thing the methodology would not be able to show that, the questions that would show capacity diversity would be ill-formed questions and not included in the tests. He is dismissing the problems as fine details but I think he is relying them in about that accuracy level, it is improper to wave them away.

One can talk about whether the g-factor is wide os small but its existence is not interesting. And existence of different kinds of intelligence points to a scattered direction. As I have understood visual-spatial reasoning can be formulated as a different dimension from language proficiency. In a school metaphor, society and students might talk alot about their "averages" but on another level they get a separate grade for each subject. That society fusses a lot over averages doesn't mean that there is a special unified "schoolness" ability that allows one to run fast at physical education and manipulate symbols fast at math. There are other factors beside g-factor and the g-factor being supersalient because of its popularity would seem to smell like a potential illusion.

The style is a bit wavy in that point we make very fine distinctions and at other points we are being very handwavy. In the parts where he refers more to work done by others it seems more of misapplication. A lot of it seems it could be interesting but it also constantly feels that details are getting trampled over left and right. It might be because I am watching partly out of order but he has theme were is is annoyed by important concepts becoming trivialized. But I realised that such trivializations are a product of relevance realization, in order to use an english idiom you primarily need its current symbolic meaning and you do next to nothing with the etymology unless you are doing a special thing like trying to search for connections between concepts. But according to RR this "cut to be fast" is the way how to be efficient and choose to do the important thing with the toys available (here the idiom). When there are lot of clever turns of phrases that reveal the subparts the revelations seems plausible and valuble but when he decries on why everybody doesn't see the world like he sees it, that is like demanding or expecting that everybody is a philosopher or a linguist. So I am feeling that there should be more "this is what it is cool about being me" and "going along this path gedts you these kind of things" but less of "you should be more like me", "I know who you should be".

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-15T15:37:38.915Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 29: Getting to the Depths of Relevance Realization

So last time we decided to dig into the central issue of realizing what's relevant, and we are following a methodological principle of not using or presupposing a capacity to realize relevance in any purported cognitive process or brain process that we're going to use to try to explain that ability.

I gave you a series of arguments that we can't use representations to explain relevance because representations crucially presuppose it and then we took a look at some very interesting empirical evidence that really comports very well with that: the evidence surrounding FINSTing and your ability to do enactive demonstrative reference / salience tagging (just making stand out the hereness and nowness of something).

We drew a few conclusions about the meaning that we're talking about in life, that connectedness is ultimately not generated by representations. I'm not denying that representations and belief and that level can't alter or transform what we find relevant, we're talking about the explanation of the phenomena [of relevance] not how it's causally affected by other aspects of cognition.

We then took a look at a syntactic level, the computational level, and saw arguments that neither inference nor rules can be used to explain the generation of relevance precisely because they also presuppose it. We looked at trying to deal with relevance in terms of some sort of internal module dedicated to it and that won't work. It's homuncular and relevance realization needs to be scale invariant, or at least multiscaleular. It has to be happening simultaneously in a local and global way, and that again points towards something else we noted about any theory: it has to account for the self-organization of relevance that is demonstrated in the phenomena of insight.

So we then saw that a theory has to use explanatory ideas that point to processes that are (at least in the originary sense) internal to their relevance realization / the relevance realizing system. I tried to get clear about how not to misunderstand that what I meant was the goals that govern relevance realization initially have to be constitutive goals, they cannot be goals built upon representing the environment in a particular way. Instead they have to be the constitutive goals that are part of an autopoietic system, a system that is self-organized because it has the goal of preserving and protecting and promoting its own self-organization that draws deep connections between relevance realization and life and relevance realization and being an autopoietic thing.

Replies from: lise
comment by lise · 2021-05-10T00:47:24.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The part about FINST and demonstrative reference made me think about localizing in sign language. You can make the sign for an entity and point to a place in the 'sign space' in front of you, so that later you can refer back to the entity by referring to (pointing to, making signs at) that place. You could set up multiple entities in the space, and later discard them again and place new ones.

My understanding of (Dutch) sign language is only rudimentary so this should be taken with a grain of salt, but it's an interesting connection nonetheless.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-12T17:42:58.504Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 26: Cognitive Science

So last time we took a look at the nature of cognitive science and argued for synoptic integration that addresses equivocation and fragmentation and the ignorance of the causal relation between these different levels which we talked about. It does that by trying to create plausible and potentially profound constructs.

I'm pretty sure that's the entire summary at the start of the next lecture? So I suppose I'll try to summarize some bits of it:

  • "Cognitive science is born out of a particular way in which the scientific study of mind has unfolded. ... Mind refers to different levels of the reality of mind, with different disciplines that use different vocabularies, different theoretical styles of argumentation, different means of measuring phenomena, different ways of gathering evidence."
  • Neuroscience talks about the brain, using patterns of neuroactivity using fMRI etc.
  • AGI / machine learning talks about the information processing of the brain; algorithms, heuristics, etc.
  • Psychologists talk about behavior, working memory, problem solving, decision-making.
  • There are lots of bridges between things; psycholinguistics bridges between linguistics and psychology to try to figure out how the physical brain communicates, which relies touching both the study of the physical brain and the study of communication.
  • Equivocation (question substitution / using a concept from one level to work in another leve) is the main thing to watch out for here, as it leads to bullshitting yourself. "No integration through equivocation!" Philosophy is useful mostly because it's about conceptual crispness / noticing and counteracting this equivocation while bridging between levels.
  • His main sketch of a way out of the meaning crisis is that we need to develop the cognitive science of meaning cultivation. [My commentary is that this seems like the right sort of meta-process; like, rather than having 'a philosopher' you have 'philosophy' or something, and so error-correction seems much easier. You lose out on the unifying vision of one creative genius, but that's the price you pay for avoiding blind spots.]
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-09T15:07:43.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 25: The Clash

Last time we took a look at what's happening in Germany in the period after Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. We took a look at the rise of pseudo-religious ideologies and of the various other cultural undercurrents and threads and processes of transformation that were gathered together in Germany and then exacerbated and ignited (if you'll allow me a volatile metaphor) by Germany's terrific defeat in the terror that was World War One, and the impact this had on Germany and how all of this, all of these features that we saw at work in Germany and in the meaning crisis get spun in Hitler's autodidactic myopia into a gnostic nightmare, a titanic pseudo-religious ideology.

The two great pseudo-religious ideologies of Nazism and Marxism (at least the Stalinist version in the Soviet Union) come to titanic blows in the Eastern Front at the Battle of Kursk. Then I pointed out that this, and then the political ideological battles of the Cold War and thereafter have left us deeply traumatized. We place no faith in pseudo-religious ideologies, utopian visions to solve the meaning crisis; at least, many of us don't. We do not see ourselves as capable of the nostalgic return to religion, somehow pretending that all of this history, all the science can be ignored in a kind of fundamentalism (and please not that I'm not equating all religion with fundamentalism!). Instead we find ourselves in the middle in between these and we're trapped; we can't go back, and we can't do a secular alternative to religion, and yet we need something that will systematically create psychotechnologies that transform consciousness, cognition, character, and culture in a way that religions have if we're going to address the meaning crisis, and in fact the meta-crisis that we're confronting right now in the world today.

So we're caught in this situation and we pursue either various radicalisms (and I critiqued the idea that the meaning crisis should be understood, or we should attempt to solve it by the means of the clash of political ideologies; that is to fundamentally misframe it, because if you remember Kierkegaard and Marx and Schopenhauer all in their different ways and in ways that we can criticize are nevertheless pointing to the fact that the participatory, perspectival knowing that is so crucial to responding to losses of meaning and regenerating meaning has been ignored by Hegel). So we can't do this politically; it doesn't mean the politics is irrelevant but it means that framing and formulating the problem at the political level is to radically misframe it and misformulate it.

Then I proposed to you that instead we turn to an alternative way of trying to reformulate the problem: that we try to get a scientific understanding, as best as we can, of the meaning machinery, this machinery that we perspectivally participate within. I'll often say 'meaning-making' but as I'll argue we don't make meaning the way the Romantics said, neither do we just receive meaning from the world the way the empiricists and the Enlightenment argued; we're going to see that it's neither one of those. That's another dichotomy that we have to transcend.

Nevertheless, let's look at this machinery, the machinery of meaning realization. What are the cognitive processes at work within it? I propose that we do that from a scientific worldview precisely because, at least from a scientific point of view, precisely because we need that to complement the historical analysis and because the scientific worldview is part of the problem of the meaning crisis itself. So I propose that we take a look at the science of cognition and that means that we take a look at cognitive science.

(The last third of this episode is warming up the transition from history to science, and so I extended a bit from the recap to the introduction of episode 26, in a way that mirrors episode 25's structure.)

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-04-16T13:58:20.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is the end of the history analysis arc and I feel like I don't get a lot out of it and I have only hazy idea why its inclusions in its length was proper.

He has a huge boner for axial age discoveries and then details how the findings get muddled or distorted later. I guess he has a program where he wants to salvage and focus on a couple of key nuggets from the axial age and leave rest of the gravel away but I would be more interested the selection critderia on why keep those bits or what kind of interessting soup one can make with the ingredients rather than a list of reviews why previous soups tasted bland.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-19T17:25:59.978Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is the end of the history analysis arc and I feel like I don't get a lot out of it and I have only hazy idea why its inclusions in its length was proper.

Yeah, I noticed being confused by this also the second time around. I've got a few guesses for what's going on.

  1. John is a guy with a theory (about relevance realization), the theory explains some stuff, but the way to sell it is to tie it to something bigger. ["All of history is culminating in this moment!"]
  2. John is a guy who constantly comes across lots of objections, and the general answer to those objections is a detailed dive through all of history. ["Eliezer, did you really have to write so many words about how to think in order to talk about AI alignment?" "Yes."]
  3. John is trying to convince people who are coming at this from the history side to take the science side seriously, and giving his spin on how all of the relevant history comes to bear is table stakes. [This is like the previous one, but who asked for the focus on that is flipped.]
  4. Actually the series is mostly about "where we are, and how we got here," and so it's more like the history is the content and the cognitive science is the secondary content. So it's not "why is half of this history?" and more "why did he tack on another 25 lectures afterwards?"

But I am noticing that quite probably I should just recommend the latter bits to people interested in relevance realization and not the history?

I would be more interested the selection critderia on why keep those bits or what kind of interessting soup one can make with the ingredients rather than a list of reviews why previous soups tasted bland.

This feels to me a bit like the normal style of philosophy (or history of science or so on); you maybe talk a little about what it is that you're hoping for with a theory of astronomy or theories in general, but you spend most of your time talking about "ok, these are the observations that theory A got wrong, and this is how theory B accounted for them", and if you're a working astronomer today, you spend most of your time thinking about "ok, what is up with these observations that my theory doesn't account for?"

I do think this comes up sometimes; like when he talks about homuncular explanations and why those are unsatisfying, that feels to me like it's transferring the general technique that helps people do good cognitive science instead of just being a poor review of a single soup. 

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-19T19:35:35.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually the series is mostly about "where we are, and how we got here," and so it's more like the history is the content and the cognitive science is the secondary content. So it's not "why is half of this history?" and more "why did he tack on another 25 lectures afterwards?"

I agree. I also think that part is the better part of the series, and I can see myself recommending to people to watch just the first part, but not just the second. Though the second part explores some important concepts (like relevance realization) I think there's a lot of room for improvement on the delivery, where I think the first part is quite well done. 

I think the two things that most bothered me in the second part were his overuse of complicated language, and his overuse of caveats (I get why he makes them, but it breaks the flow and makes it so much harder to follow, especially together with all the complicated language)

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-08T14:53:34.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 24: Hegel

Last time we took a look at important develops that are centered upon the figure of Hegel. I can't give a comprehensive analysis of Hegel's thought; it's too complex and sophisticated. I was trying to do the best I could to capture that within Hegel's thought which is directly relevant to our understanding the genealogy of the meaning crisis. 

We saw how Hegel proposes how to move beyond Kant and the Romantics by rejecting Kant's notion of 'the thing in itself' and saying: "look, reality is just the patterns of intelligibility, there is nothing above and beyond that," a form of idealism. As our ideas are being realized, as patterns of intelligibility are being developed, reality is also simultaneously being developed. We took a look at this notion of a quasi-living system of these patterns of intelligibility in development called Geist. Hegel proposed that that development can be understood as a process that he called dialectic, echoing Plato but I think severing the notion of dialectic from anagoge (which features in some criticisms of Hegel that we looked at towards the end).

This dialectic is a process in which ideas (again, not just things in the head; these are patterns of intelligibility, patterns in the way reality is realized in both the sense of being known and being actual) articulate and differentiate from each other. One idea is opposed by another, contrasted to, distinguished from, and then it is taken up in a higher order integration and then that serves as a new idea that can be contrasted with other ideas. This dialectical process complexifies the pattern of intelligibility.  It emerges and develops and becomes more and more. The irrationality, the failure to understand, is being slowly transmuted, actualized into deeper patterns of understanding, deeper aspects of being, and then the idea is that this reaches a state in which a system of ideas emerges that grasps the dialectical process itself (as found exemplified, Hegel believed, in his own philosophy) and this is the culmination of the state of absolute Geist.

For Hegel, the real is the rational, the rational is the real; what we get then is that this development of the rationality and intelligibility of reality is also the development of reality itself. So this codevelopment of meaning and being is absolute spirit, absolute mind; this is Hegel's version of God; a secularized, non-religious God.

Hegel understood his philosophy in religious terms, but he was always pursuing that understanding by translating religious terms and religious experience into philosophical conceptual structure. He advocates for a new mythology; a mythology that is integrated with philosophy, a mythology of Reason which will be the last and greatest work of mankind, the culmination of all of history.

I took you through an example of how understanding the ability to make sense passes into this moment of self-realization in reason as mythology passes into philosophy. We did an example of that showing how Hegel secularized the Trinity in a historical process of the self-realization of rationality. In that sense, Hegel is the Thomas Aquinas of Protestantism; he was proposing this grand synthesis, this grand secularization of the whole Hebraic Christian idea of God at work in history and God working through human beings and the Agapic processes to co-create the real future, the utopic but real future.

We took a look at the main criticisms of Hegel; we reminded ourselves of the criticisms made by Schopenhauer about the will to live was missing, and then how Nietzsche takes this up in the will to power, and the centrality of the will. I took a look at the other great existential Kierkegaard and his criticism, basically using some of the terms we've developed, that Hegel has reduced everything to propositional conceptual knowing. He has left out the perspectival participatory knowing, he has left out the anagoge, he's given us only epistemic transcendence, he hasn't given us existential ethical self-transcendence, personal transformation, and transformative experience that are necessary for returning to / making deeper contact with reality.

We noted this is also consonant with the work of L. A. Paul about how we can't reason our way out of transformative experiences that are so central to the cultivation of wisdom. We then looked at another person who emphasized this lack of will and participation in Hegel's system, and this is the work of Karl Marx. Marx's great proposal--great and terrifying proposal--is that history is not driven by reason (the man in Plato's system) but by the monster. Marx is deeply influenced by Feuerbach and Feuerbach's critique of religion as the projection of our own humanity, and that religion is not the arena in which spirituality is working itself out, religion is the projective distortion that distracts us from how we are the authors of spirituality in history. It is a vehicle of self-alienation. So Marx takes the Feuerbachian critique and he rejects the theistic resonances within Hegel (the idealistic) and he says 'no, the dialectic is not a dialectic of ideas that's playing itself out religiously. It is a dialectic of economic forces that is playing itself out politically.' 

The dialectic is not between ideas that are in contrast but between socioeconomic ways of life, classes that are in political conflict with each other but are nevertheless systematically related. As that historical process of class conflict unfolds, this dialectic will work out all the self-contradictions in our socioeconomic system (our current one being capitalism for example) until the contradictions are resolved in a socioeconomic state in which peace and freedom have been achieved because all of the internal contradictions that drive the violence will be resolved. This is a completely secularized version of the Judeo-Christian model of God working himself out in history to bring us to the promised land. Marx offers the participatory knowing that is missing in Hegel by proposing how we identify with our class, we identify with the struggle, and we participate in the Kairos, the turning of history, by engaging in revolution and so the totalizing, the totalitarian kind of ideology that Hegel is proposing is being wedded to the idea of violent political change within revolution. So this is a very, very powerful pseudoreligious ideology.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-08T15:07:02.532Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hegel has reduced everything to propositional conceptual knowing. He has left out the perspectival participatory knowing, he has left out the anagoge, he's given us only epistemic transcendence, he hasn't given us existential ethical self-transcendence, personal transformation, and transformative experience that are necessary for returning to / making deeper contact with reality.

So I feel like there's a Schopenhauer-like response here, which is something like... "development is the joke that the civilization plays on the individual"? That is, you might go about your life thinking there's some deeper purpose to your life or some great spiritual growth on offer, but actually what really matters is a hundred thousand people all being gears in a giant machine to make slightly better semiconductors, which then serves as gears in another giant machine, and the whole thing is aware of this process of using material progress to advance material progress. One can view the scientific / capitalistic revolution eating the world as the narrowly propositional / materialistic forces competing against the balanced / spiritualistic forces and just actually delivering the goods in a much more obvious way.

Like, it's a coincidence that this paulfchristiano post [LW · GW] came out yesterday, but it somehow feels very relevant for thinking about material dialecticism.

My inner Vervaeke responds with "but you pay a terrible price for that!", and he's right; if you give up on individual development / experience, then the bottom falls out and you end up with Bostrom's Disneyland with no children. 

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-07T15:39:05.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 23: Romanticism

Last time we were talking about the historical developments that happened around Kant. We took a look at Kant and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I present Nietzsche as one of the great prophets (I'm using that in the Old Testament sense of a prophet) of the meaning crisis. We talked about a way of understanding what Nietzsche is saying, how it's not just simply atheism. We also took a look at a way in which Nietzsche doesn't really adequately give us a response to the meaning crisis although he indicates that an important project within the response to the meaning crisis is: how do we reappropriate from the Axial legacy the idea of radical self-transcendence within a secular scientific worldview?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-07T15:39:18.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another short summary, so let me summarize.

  • Kant's trying to unify the two halves separated by Descartes; he proposes a shift where the mathematical, rather than being 'out there', is a lens that you apply to reality. "Math isn't discovering reality, math is ultimately about how the mind imposes a structure on reality so it can reason about it." Vervaeke comments: "that's a really big price you pay for getting the two sides of Descartes back together!"
  • A quick description of predictive processing, how actually there does seem to be a filtering thing going on. Bottom-up and top-down processing are "completely interpenetrating in a completely self-organizing manner outside of your cognitive awareness."
  • The Romantic reaction to this Kantian model is to notice that the closer you are to the mind / the more rational you are, the more you're in your abstract frame and out of touch. So in order to get closer to reality, you have to move further from the mind / from rationality / from math.
  • Jung is basically Kantian epistemology plus gnostic mythology.
  • Vervaeke's very ambivalent about the Romantics because they're after contact with reality and they're trying to recapture the lost perspectival / participatory knowledge. But because they're in a Kantian framework, they think they get that by going into the depths of the irrational aspects of the mind.
  • The Romantics become anti-empiricists; the empiricists view the mind as a blank state that's impressed on by experience, the world is an empty canvas on which imagination expresses itself. (Vervaeke thinks both are wrong; I think they remind me a lot of no-self and self [LW · GW], which I view as interrelated like the taijitu.)
  • "[Romanticism] is a pseudoreligious ideology so it sweeps the continent but it's like spiritual junk food. It's tasty, but it's not nutritious, and so what happens to it? Well it quickly gets translated into nastier forms, not without first of all setting the world on fire. Romanticism plays a big role in the rise of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars."
  • Romanticism fails; it wants to be the replacement for Christianity and doesn't, but it also doesn't go away.
  • Schopenhauer takes the Romantic notion of outward motion (from mind to world) as 'imagination' and replaces it with 'will'. Previous depictions put the 'head' above the 'stomach', visualizing humans as using reason to overcome their passions; Schopenhauer inverts this order, where the stomach (will) is the driver, and reason is its servant.
  • Schopenhauer is pretty down on the 'will to live' ("sex is a cruel joke played on the individual by the species" -> your life is shaped by striving for something that doesn't really benefit you and isn't worth it)
  • Nietzsche takes will to live and replaces it with the will to power. Nietzsche sees the Lutheran version of Christianity as about suppressing the capacity for self-transcendence, and the will to power as recapturing it. (Vervaeke thinks the core problem with Nietzsche is that you have self-transcendence without the machinery for dealing with self-deception, which is what rationality ultimately is.)


Also, I'll pull out this quote where he tries to summarize the overall project:

I'd like to now pick up on what comes after Descartes, because I foreshadowed at the end of our last episode that we are in a quite significant situation. We are radically disconnected from ourselves, both our own bodies and our own minds, from other people, from the world, from history, from culture, from sapiential institutions, from traditions of transformation. We are radically isolated and bereft, and yet we face these tremendous crises: ecological crisis, socioeconomic crisis, political crisis, mental health crisis, they're all interlocking and we face it and they're so exigent and so pervasive and so profound and so complex that we need a fundamental transformation in consciousness, cognition, character, community in order to really restructure our sense of who and what we are in our relationship to the world in order to address these crises.

Now, the systematic set of psychotechnologies that have brought about such radical transformations in the past have been religions, and yet part of the heritage of Descartes and the Scientific Revolution and the ongoing fragmentation that has followed from the Protestant Reformation is an increasing secularization of the world. That's a little too simplistic--I mean, it's bifurcated, you get the increasing secularization on one hand and then the increasing attempt to nostalgically retreat to a pre-scientific model in various forms of fundamentalism, which of course is doomed ultimately to a complete kind of failure.

This is happening such that for many of us, a return to religion in order to provide the multi-level, multivariate complex transformation that is needed to meet the crises that we're facing is not available to us, precisely because we are pro-religious or we are myopically entrenched within a pre-scientific model of the Scientific Revolution that will in no way avail us with what we need in order to address these crises. So either way you want to turn, the religious option is not a viable one.

What I want to now explore is why a secular solution for many people also no longer seems viable. So what I want to argue is that we face this hard problem of needing a religion that is no religion. It cannot be fully secular, but we don't want it to be religious, and it is filled with all this paradoxical tension and contradiction that I've tried to argue is the hallmark of the Cartesian legacy. 

The way I want to argue that is to try to show that the responses to the meaning crisis that come after Descartes. I'm going to talk about them in terms of the pseudo-religious ideologies, and how we have been traumatized by our interest and bewitchment by these ideologies precisely because these ideologies have led to titanic warfare and genocidal bloodshed. So we're trapped between; we can't return to religion, and we can't move to its political secular alternatives because of the trauma that has been inflicted by their history, and so we are stuck. "There is no political solution", to quote The Police, and yet we are not willing to return to a nostalgic and therefore impotent religious framework, so we sit trapped.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-06T18:42:14.553Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 22: Descartes vs. Hobbes

So last time we took a look at three pivotal figures; two of them are in dialogue with the central figure, Rene Descartes. We took a look at the debate between Descartes and Hobbes, and how that is so current and relevant to us today in the debate around the possible creation of strong AI and what that means both scientifically and existentially to us, and we then took a look at what comes out of Descartes's response to Hobbes.

Descartes builds a defense against Hobbes's proposal for a completely materialistic artificial intelligence / computer model of the mind in terms that are drawn very strictly and I think rigorously from the central insights of the Scientific Revolution, and that seems to save the human soul from the Hobbesian onslaught, but we pay a really, really devastating price for the Cartesian defense. We have a radical disconnection between mind and body, which is radical because of how embodied your experience of yourself and your world is. A radical disconnection between mind and other minds, because you only have access to other minds through bodies! If there is no possible connection between mind and body, there's no way you can read other people's mental states off of their bodily behavior. Then we have the radical disconnection between mind and reality, because Descartes gives us two competing models of how we get in touch with what's real: one is we track the mathematical (that of course was picked up by Positivism and people who advocate for science as our main access to reality) and then the other is the 'cogito ergo sum': all that's left of the contact with reality is the moment where the mind touches itself, and we get a purely subjective notion of realness (that's picked up by the Romantic tradition and is also prevalent in our world today).

We swing between the Positivistic and Romantic notions of how we decide what's real in a completely unstable fashion. We then noted that even your connection to yourself has been undermined because the Cartesian project is so radical in its withdrawal; it's so radical in its disconnection from mind, body, world, tradition, history, cultural, that all that's in the cogito, all that is guaranteed to exist is this moment of self-awareness. What you end up with is this completely atomic, completely autobiographically empty self adrift in the terrifying infinite spaces that Pascal talked about.

We talked about Pascal's response to Descartes, and how Pascal was convinced that Descartes's attempts (and Pascal was right about this!) to try to deal with the anxiety of the Scientific Revolution by promoting a methodology of searching for certainty would ultimately come to ruin. And of course they have come to ruin. Instead what Pascal pointed out is that we have lost all these other ways of knowing that were so central to the Axial Revolution; all we have left is a spirit of geometry, we have lost the spirit of finesse. We have lost the procedural knowing, the perspectival knowing, and the participatory knowing that are so integral to the transformative experiences that have been central to our discussion of the Axial Age's legacy. Of course Pascal himself had such a transformative experience, and found the Cartesian framework incapable of addressing or articulating it.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-06T19:20:24.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So I gave a talk on the Meaning Crisis on Sunday in the Walled Garden, which mostly was about the agent-arena relationship and some other stuff, and among other things I pointed out that part of the crisis here is a growing sophistication of concepts that breaks down 'useful bucket errors' at earlier stages. "It's fine for Plato to say that truth is goodness and goodness is truth, but we have clearer concepts now and have counterexamples of truth that's not good and goodness that's not true." Zvi [LW · GW] pushed back; 'well, how sure are we about those counterexamples?'

After sleeping on it, I think "actually, they're more like type definitions than they are like counterexamples." If one thing is about a correspondence between descriptions of worlds and our particular world, and the other thing is about a correspondence between descriptions of worlds and real numbers that indicate how much one ought to prefer those worlds, for them to be exactly equal you need to a very strange utility function. And it's much, much harder to make them line up if you have a difference version of 'good' than 'consequentialist utility theory', as that gives you different types.

Continuing on the type distinction, Vervaeke talks a lot about these four varieties of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. But the Cartesian view is really only comfortable with the propositional knowing. [Actually, isn't it also about the participatory knowing of being your mind touching itself? But I suppose that's only a very narrow subset of participatory knowledge.]

One of the things that came up in the conversation was the way in which 'everything' can be compiled to propositional knowledge. My favorite example of this is Solomonoff Induction; it's a formal method for updating on observations to determine what the underlying program for a computable world is. First, you run all possible programs to get their output streams, you compare those output streams against the actual observations you get, and you rule out all programs who disagree with actual observations, and then you have a distribution over the remaining programs to predict what future observations from the world will be. This 'works' if by 'works' you mean "couldn't possibly be implemented." So, good enough for the mathematicians. ;)

But armed with the same style of argument as Solomonoff Induction, you could make the case that really all other things are propositional (in an important way). My participatory knowing--what it's like to be me participating in an experience--cashes out in terms of physical facts about my brain, and a complicated tower of inferences that recognizes those physical facts as being an instance of participatory knowing. That complicated tower of inferences is a program that could be implemented (and thus is present in) Solomonoff Induction. There might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy, but not Solomonoff's. [Well, except incomputable things, but who cares about those anyway.]

I notice that I'm finding myself more and more dissatisfied with this sort of 'emulation' argument. That is, consider the Church-Turing argument that if you have the ability to do general computation, you can implement any other method of doing general computation, and so differences between programming languages / computing substrate / whatever are philosophically irrelevant. But if you're an engineer instead of a philosopher, this sort of emulation can actually be fiendishly difficult, and require horrifying slowdowns. In reality, thinking of things in the way they're actually implemented helps you carve reality at the joints / think better thoughts more quickly.

I'm not yet sure how to wrap this up nicely. I think there's a pitfall where these sorts of emulators / compilers / etc. are used, not necessarily as curiosity-stoppers, but as finesse-stoppers? Like, you could learn how to build skills for dealing with this sort of time, but because it's philosophically solved, you don't have the sort of drive to grow.

But I don't have the positive version of this crystallized yet. I do think it looks something like balance, like trying to be strong in lots of different ways, instead of pretending that a particular way is all-encompassing.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-05T16:12:19.885Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 21: Martin Luther and Descartes

Last time we took a look at Martin Luther and the deep impact in our cultural grammar made by the Protestant Reformation. We talked about things like cultural training for narcissism, sapiential obsolescence, the division of church and state which furthers secularism, and the rise of the Protestant work ethic and how that's got integrated with emergent corporate capitalism. 

We then took a look at some initial responses by Pascal to this change and the loss of the cosmos, being replaced by the infinite spaces that terrify. We looked at an individual who tried to respond to that, a brilliant genius from the heart of the Scientific Revolution: that's Rene Descartes. He creates a new psychotechnology, the psychotechnology that is at the core of the scientific enterprise as understood today: that's Cartesian graphing. The whole proposal is that we could render everything into equations and that if we mathematically manipulate those abstract symbolic propositions we can compute reality.

Descartes saw in that a method for how we could achieve certainty, and he understood the anxiety of his time as being provoked by a lack of certainty, and the search for it, and this method of making the mind computational in nature, would alleviate the anxiety that was prevalent at the time. So I noted that we had two different elements in our grammar that are in significant tension with each other: they both share, and that's who so interesting about them, I think they share, they overlap significantly in the idea of the isolated individual mind. Whereas Luther's going to put an emphasis on conscience, well, Descartes is going to put an emphasis on what I will now call consciousness. Of course these two words are highly related in nature, but on one side we have the grammar from Luther telling us that we need to accept without question, without evidence, without argumentation, and then Descartes is we should only accept that when we have certainty. 

Neither one of those is viable for us! They're both pathological in a very deep way, but we saw that Descartes nevertheless proposes this new method. It's similar in so many ways to essential features of the Protestant Reformation. A method cut off from tradition, a method cut off from institution, a method that relies just on the individual mind in relationship to itself. So although in one sense these grammars, the Lutheran grammar and the Cartesian grammar seems so opposed in our culture, and these grammars are at war in our current culture war, the war between an understanding of faith as a radical acceptance and knowledge as the pursuit of logically derived certainty, although they are that, that grammatical tension is at the core of a lot of our cultural wars.

Nevertheless these two views are so deeply bound together because of their mutual influence and shared commitment to the isolated individual self. Descartes has a couple of contemporaries, as I mentioned Pascal (we'll come back to Pascal in a bit), but we also talked about Hobbes. Hobbes comes up with the radical proposal, following on Descartes, if cognition is computation and if matter is real then we can build a material computer and we could artificially make cognition. Artificial intelligence is a product of the Scientific Revolution and is part and parcel of the advent of the meaning crisis in modernity.

Replies from: Yoav Ravid, Vaniver, Slider
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-05T16:59:57.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typo: "if matter is real the we can build a material computer" should be then

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-05T16:56:45.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Vervaeke's split between Luther and Descartes reminded me of SSC's On First Looking into Chapman's "Pop Bayesianism", but the camps are importantly different. There, Aristotelianism is the camp of certainty, and Anton-Wilsonism the camp of anti-certainty. Here, both Luther and Descartes are after certainty; Luther thinks you get it by a sort of 'pick it and stick with it' faith (which is importantly detached from action, but not necessarily from evidence!), whereas Descartes thinks you get it from careful deductive reasoning.

comment by Slider · 2021-04-14T12:18:14.412Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Luther found the practise of "buying your sins away" that the catholic church was doing as highly bad. In that way "no you can't wealth out of moral dimension in anyway" makes it more sensible. The catholic church was turning into a organization that exercised political and societal control rather than spiritual service.

In science if you make multiple replications you would expect them to have similar outcomes if the phenomen in question is in fact real. If there is a central authority that has beforehand decided what the result should be then that is not true measurement. Thus freeing all the differerent experiment runners to indiviudal verify the result rather than leaning on a opinion leader makes for a more reality-sensitive process. Luther thinking that persons should read the book for themselfs rather than have it read for them doesn't seem so obviously lead to fractuation.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-14T13:58:38.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Luther thinking that persons should read the book for themselfs rather than have it read for them doesn't seem so obviously lead to fractuation.

IMO it does, because 1) people's innate judgment / different life experiences / contrarianism / etc. can lead them to disagree on interpretation. [Relevant xkcd] If your centralized authority is a person who can respond to events and questions, it's obvious what the Pope says you should do about X, whereas if it's a book that needs to be interpreted, people can more easily disagree about what the Bible says you should do about X.

Note also that a centralized authority both discourages rather than encourages that sort of disagreement and directs status-seeking to climbing the hierarchy instead of finding a thing to disagree on.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-03T17:17:31.724Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 20: Death of the Universe

Last time we took a look at the advent of the Scientific Revolution. We looked at the work of Copernicus and how the important advent of a scientific description of reality had with it the consequence that most of our experience--our sensory experience--was questionable as illusory in nature. Galileo also developed the idea of math as the language of reality, and used that with the new experimental method (a method also born out of the idea that most of our cognition is deceptive and biasing in nature) and he used that to discover inertial motion and change the notion of matter into something that exists and resists our will, but that had the effect of killing the universe and making it purposeless in nature.

Thus we become odd islands of meaning and purpose and in a vast ocean of meaningless, purposeless material motion. So all of that is going to have an impact on people's self understanding, the meaning that they're using to make sense of their existence. Look what's happening here: that Aristotelian idea that the structure of your experience and the structure of reality conform has been radically undermined. Now you are trapped within your own mind behind the veils of illusion disconnected from the world and God has become progressively more and more a matter of will.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-01T16:50:14.195Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 19: Augustine and Aquinas

So last time we took a look at how Augustine drew all of this development, this very complex sophisticated articulation of the Axial Revolution, drew it all together into a nomological order that brought with it the best of Aristotelian science, a normative order that brought with it the best of Platonic spirituality, a narrative order that brought with it the best of the Christian process of moving through history, and of course along the ride comes some of the best psychotherapeutic techniques available from the ancient world. All of this was integrated together; these three orders that articulate the space of how we're connected to ourselves, to each other, and to the world; the nomological, the normative, and the narrative.

We saw, however, that while this does address the fundamental axes of meaning even as it's understood by our best current cognitive science, this historical legacy starts to come under threat. Initially, it comes under threat in a way that doesn't seem very threatening, people are changing how they're using the psychotechnology of reading. They're going from Lectio Divina, a participatory perspectival transformative form of recitation into a silent consumptive model where I'm trying to consume information and knowledge is an inner coherence between my propositions, rather than a transformative conformity to the world. That of course is born out of a slowly at first and then an accelerating rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus and the best science of the ancient world. There's the threat of "how do we incorporate this authoritative figure into the worldview that was bequeathed to us by Augustine?" and that challenge is taken up by Aquinas.

Aquinas does this, and it's hard to see how else it could have been done, by returning to the fundamental grammar of the Axial Revolution--the two worlds mythology--and reconfiguring it into two real worlds, a natural world understood by reason and a supernatural world understood by faith. Faith is now understood as how love transforms the will, and the will is primarily how I assert certain propositions to be true. As I mentioned, that separation, while that solves the problem at the time, brings with it the threat that as the supernatural world becomes nonviable to us, that we will lose the Axial Revolution's heritage. We will separate love from reason and spirituality from science in a particularly pernicious and dangerous fashion.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-01T17:11:39.411Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Initially, it comes under threat in a way that doesn't seem very threatening, people are changing how they're using the psychotechnology of reading. They're going from Lectio Divina, a participatory perspectival transformative form of recitation into a silent consumptive model where I'm trying to consume information and knowledge is an inner coherence between my propositions, rather than a transformative conformity to the world. 

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I (as someone who deeply prefers text-based communication media to audio or visual ones) nevertheless encourage people to actually watch the videos.

It also points to one of the big meta-issues; part of what's happening is modularization and specialization. Reading used to be a big package deal that got you lots of things, and now it's a narrow focused tool that does what it does very well, but doesn't give you the other parts of the package deal. As far as I can tell, we're better off with rapid silent consumptive reading than just having access to Lectio Divina. But there's a big price for this in coherence, as all of the various components of your life become necessarily detached from each other so that they can be interchangeable.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-31T17:32:19.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 18: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

Last time we were talking about this interaction and confluence between nascent Christianity, the transformation that's undergoing the Platonic tradition in Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism. We had ended up by talking about Plotinus, and how he brings about this grand unification of the best science of the time (Aristotle), the best therapy of the time (Stoicism), and the best spirituality of the time (Platonism). This is done all in a way that powerfully integrates mystical experience, achieving higher states of consciousness, and rational argumentation. Things that we now experience as diametrically opposed: science and spirituality, reason and tranformation, therapy and realness, all of these things were not; they were instead powerfully mutually supportive.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-31T17:39:13.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Again, Vervaeke on returning to something that 'worked' in the past:

So, because they represent the radicalization of the Axial Revolution, there is much to learn from Gnosticism. I do not, I am not advocating an attempt to resurrect it or bring it back. What we need to do is understand and that's what these individuals [Tillich, Jung, Corbin] represent. Notice that at least one of them was one of the most courageous opponents of the Nazis. Tillich was the first non-Jewish academic to be fired by the Nazis because from the very beginning and consistently he identified them and resisted them.

So keep this whole framework in mind; we can salvage from Gnosticism gnosis and some of its radical message about how we can reconfigure, how we can have a non-theistic non-supernaturalistic understanding of sacredness? Can we do that and avoid the conspiratorial way of thinking they have that can be so damaging, and has been?

See, one of the things that Gnosticism can quickly elide into is those utopian ideologies that give you the great conspiracy theory and tell you that you belong to the chosen few, the chosen race, or the chosen class, and that violence is acceptable because the system is evil and must be destroyed.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-30T15:45:57.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 17: Gnosis and Existential Inertia

So last time we were taking a look at a group of people: the Gnostics. They shouldn't be understood as forming a community or group, although there might have been some Gnostic churches; we should think of them more like we think of existentialism or fundamentalism. You can be a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or Jew etc.; it's more about a style, a way of being, a way of understanding and interpreting. It was pervasive during the same period as early Christianity and the two are interacting with each other. In fact, as we will see, many Gnostics thought of themselves as Christians.

So we were taking a look at how to go about interpreting Gnosticism. Why are we doing this? We're doing this because I'm presenting the Gnostic movement as the Axial Revolution within the Axial Revolution. It's taking the revolution to its culmination in many important ways that I think have direct relevance for us today. In order to do that I'm presenting to you something like the cognitive science of what gnosis actually is, and in order to do that we've been making use of some important work by Harry Frankfurt and L. A. Paul. The basic idea is that we can talk about people being existentially trapped and that that is a result of them being existentially stuck, they have inertia, they do not know how to engage the anagoge in order to make a worldview viable to them.

They are existentially indecisive. They are existentially stupefied because they're facing deep transformative experience and they don't know how to reason their way through it. They don't know if they should do it and that existential entrapment can be very, very damaging. It can fragment your world and tear apart your agency and so people can suffer from this in a profound way, which means Gnosticism as Hans Jonas and other people have seen is directly related to a lot of the modern confrontation with meaninglessness and nihilism, because in the meaning crisis people also similarly feel deeply existentially trapped.

So what is needed is a recovery of serious play through the engagement in ritual behavior. This ritual play affords an individual to engage in enactive analogy, so that they can get into that liminal state in which they can, in a perspectival and participatory manner, bridge in a way apt way between 'the world and the self that they are now' and 'the world and the self that want to viably become'. That enacted ritual should also afford anagoge. It should afford the transframing, the reciprocal anagogic process by which self and world are transformed such that we can go through the sensibility transcendence which will make a worldview viable to us.

That ritual combination--that enacted analogy and enactive anagoge--is empowered by the cognitive flexibility brought on by an altered state of consciousness. Hopefully a higher state of consciousness that gives us a sense of the increased realness of the world that we are trying to move into. So that higher state of consciousness motivates us to go through this radical transformative experience. 

Now, of course, there are dangers associated with all of this. When we are engaging in these kinds of radical transformation of our salience landscape, when we are putting ourselves and our world at risk, when we are inducing altered states of consciousness, there is a significant chance that we will fall prey to parasitic processing, to bullshitting ourselves, to deceiving ourselves, and therefore it is very important, and this is also part of what was going on with Gnosticism, to build up a community shared mythology, a shared set of psychotechnological practices, a shared social network of distributed cognition to provide sapiential feedback, guidance, correction, and encouragement for people when they are endeavoring to go through the kind of transformation that will release them from this existential entrapment. So you have some higher state of consciousness (hopefully) that has some aspects of being a higher state of consciousness and that is going to be set within a ritual framing that I've been talking about, and then you want that in turn set within an important sapiential and supportive community that is teaching you all kinds of the relevant skills by which one can bring wisdom, the ability to overcome self-deceptive self-destructive behavior, to bear upon this transformation. When all of that is the case, this is what gnosis is. It's this kind of deeply transformative, deeply respectable participatory knowing that is ritually enframed and embedded within a sapiential and supportive community.

Replies from: Vaniver, Slider
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-05T16:19:27.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In looking for another post, I found SSC's Against Anton-Wilsonism, which I think makes the same point as Vervaeke repeatedly makes, of being against a sort of pick-and-choose autodidactic approach to mysticism, as opposed to taking a package deal from a sapiential and supportive community, and actually putting in the calories. 

Replies from: Yoav Ravid, Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-05T17:51:19.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait, isn't that what Vervaeke himself does? Or does he do it himself because he thinks he's proficient enough and is putting enough effort into it, and is willing to risk failure for the chance of finding new ground, but thinks in general people should pick up a ready-made bundle and roll with it? Perhaps the ecosystem of practices he's trying to develop?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-04-06T05:38:25.749Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think he's doing the autodidactic thing. Like, he studies wisdom as a scientist, but I think personally he practices tai chi and meditation in part because they're tried-and-true with the sort of supportive community that he talks up in many places. Much of this lecture series is, I think, not his material, and is instead other people's work and other people's analysis, passed through his filters. [He doesn't mention this until later, but he's not trying to be a prophet / start a religion / etc.]

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-04-05T17:43:30.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From that post:

There are certain fields where it’s really obvious to everyone that learning about the field is different from learning the field. There are probably historians of music who have never picked up an instrument, and they don’t fancy themselves musicians. And political scientists don’t delude themselves into thinking they would make great politicians.

Mysticism is not one of these fields (rationality isn’t either, but that’s a different blog article).

Sounds like a good article, only learning about rationality and not actually learning rationality is definitely a core failure mode in learning rationality. Has Scott or anyone wrote about it?

comment by Slider · 2021-04-13T16:35:36.975Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The example of thinking whether one should become a vampire was very resonant with me because I had watched "LA by night". Whether you should make your children your childer, whether you should embrace your lover, indeed the basis of the decision can be obscured and there are information asymmetries. The angst of the characters agonising over the harsnesses they always didn't have choice themselfs to opt into. That is what happens when the transformation is opted or forced into and it turns out to be a bad choice?

Bleed is not neccesarily always a sought after phenomenon. Being able to distinguish the player and the character is very often desirable. Bleed can make you explore things you didn't want explored althought I guess it does enable one to explore things one couldn't be informed on whether they want them explored.

The lingo of "agent and arena" I don't have a full grap on but for the setting of the vampire role paying game having a name for the arena "World of Darkness" makes it click it me more. Having all the different kinds of agents have their own lingo and understanding of the world also makes it clearer. One can talk about the differences between humans and vampires or the difference between kine and kindred. In a way it is about the same objects but the choice of terminology is more natural to one kind of agent over the other.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-25T18:39:45.587Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 14: Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics

So last time we finished up our look at what was going on in Buddhism and then we moved back to the West and we started to take a look at what was coming after the Axial Revolution. We saw that Aristotle's disciple Alexander ushered in a period of turmoil and cultural anxiety, a period when many people were expecting or were experiencing domicide, a very deep and profound sense of loss of home. Not of having a house or dwelling, but that connectedness, that rootedness to one's culture, one's place, one's history, one's language group, one's religion, one's community, etc.

We saw what happens is a change in the cultivation of wisdom. Notice again the deep connection between the cultivation of wisdom and the attempt to enhance meaning in response to a meaning crisis. What happens is a change in the notion of wisdom, and wisdom now takes on a therapeutic dimension in which the philosopher is the physician of the soul and has to learn to hear anxiety.

Then we learned how the Epicureans responded to this, how they diagnosed the problem like a physician and prescribed a response. They diagnosed the anxiety of the period of the Hellenistic Domicide as being caused by an anxiety about one's own mortality, and we look at how they responded to that. They advocated giving up (I would argue) the quixotic attempt to achieve immortality and instead trying to come to a lived acceptance of one's mortality. They did that by slowly getting you to realize getting clear about your nebulous anxiety, that is not about non-existence and not about experiencing total loss, it's about experiencing partial loss.

Then there's a remedy to experiencing partial loss, which is to set yourself upon those things that are actually constitutive of meaningful happiness, and then deeply realizing and structuring your lives so that you will have those up until the moment of your death, which is philosophically informed friendship, meaningful relationships in which we are afforded the cultivation of wisdom and self-transcendence.

Now, while I think mortality salience is definitely a part of the Hellenistic crisis, I don't think the Epicureans have a comprehensive understanding, and to get a more comprehensive understanding and diagnosis we turn to the Stoics. But in order to understand the Stoics, we have to understand the group they developed out of: those were the Cynics.

The Cynics were not as impressed by Socrates as argumentation as Plato was. They were much more impressed by Socrates's capacity for confrontation and provocatively inducing [aporia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aporia) in people. They started to practice this and in doing so they started to force people to realize the distinction between moral codes and purity codes, and to thereby pay more careful attention to what they're actually setting their hearts upon so that their hearts would not be broken by being set on man-made impermanent cultural systems and values.

Zeno (the Cynic) was deeply impressed by this but he was also impressed by Plato's argumentation. He wanted to integrate the two together and he also had the fundamental insight that although particular cultures and historical institutions are contingent, being social is not. We are inherently social in the depths of our humanity, so leaving the polis was not actually an option according to Zeno. Instead what we have to do is realize our issue isn't what we're setting our hearts upon, but how we're setting our hearts. Pay much more attention to the process than the product.

So you can see how the Stoics are even picking up on something that's implicit in the Epicureans. The Epicureans aren't trying to change the world and eradicate death by bringing about immortality, the Epicureans are trying to get you to reframe, have an insight, not just an intellectual insight but an existential insight that changes the meaning of your mortality. This was the core of the Stoic insight: pay attention to how that existential meaning is being made. Pay attention to how that process of co-identification (the way we're assuming and assigning identities is occurring), because that's where your self and your identity and your agency are being forged.

The problem is most of us let that process by mindlessly, automatically, and reactively, and so we MAR this process. We make it susceptible to distortion and that will affect the very machinery of our self, of our being in the world.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-30T16:54:57.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From The Courage to Be, by Paul Tillich, discussing the Stoics:

The larger concept of courage which includes an ethical and ontological element becomes immensely effective at the end of the ancient and the beginning of the modern world, in Stoicism and Neo-Stoicism. Both are philosophical schools alongside others, but both are at the same time more than philosophical schools. They are the way in which some of the noblest figures in later antiquity and their followers in modern times have answered the problem of existence and conquered the anxieties of fate and death. Stoicism in this sense is a basic religious attitude, whether it appears in theistic, atheistic, or transtheistic forms.

Therefore it is the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.


One event especially gave the Stoics' courage lasting power--the death of Socrates. That became for the whole ancient world both a fact and a symbol. It showed the human situation in the fact of fate and death. It showed a courage which could affirm life because it could affirm death.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-23T16:09:42.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 12: Higher States of Consciousness, Part 2

So last time we finished up a cognitive scientific exploration of higher states of consciousness, awakening experiences, these kinds of mystical experiences that bring about massive transformation. We saw how we can give a psychologically active description of these processes that explain both the experiential profile that people are having and some of the features that they find therein. We were also able to talk about this at the level of machine learning and information processing, and at the brain level. What comes out of this is a picture of a state of consciousness in which we are getting a flow state that is improving our optimal grip on the world, optimizing our performance for making sense of things and enhancing our overall capacity for learning and problem-solving.

We saw that in fact provides a very good justification for the states being the guidance for the transformation of life and that what they do is they give a brain state that is highly optimized, processing things in a way that gives us a tremendous sense of a plausible grip on the world, and that is making use of processing that is absolutely indispensable and foundational for us. It has a kind of important priority in of our processing and what I suggested from this is that while it doesn't give us any good theories in a sense of propositional claims about the metaphysical structure of reality, these states do justify their claim to give us guidance. So although they are not rational in the sense of providing good argument and evidence for beliefs they are rational in the sense of wisdom, in that they optimize some of our core processing for being in contact with reality in a way that is coupled optimally to our own processes of self transcendence and the cultivation of wisdom.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-23T16:42:45.309Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So this completes Vervaeke's account (for now) of what's going on with mystical experiences. They don't do the thing we might want them to (give us access to propositional knowledge), but they give us some sort of non-propositional guidance through a way to vary our internals in a way that lets us experiment with things / untrap our priors

This also explains some about why it would be ineffable: consider the difference between describing an idealized algorithm and describing a pernicious bug you found in your code. The first is simple and formal, with many of the details abstracted; the second is almost entirely about the details. Most of these experiences are more like exposing psychological bugs so that they can be reimplemented, in a way that's not going to generalize between people (as everyone's implementation of that bit of their psychology will likely be different).

But... I'm not convinced it's an asymmetric weapon, yet. The thing where you randomly increase variation sometimes breaks you out of bad spots, but it sometimes puts you into bad spots. I think Vervaeke would respond: that's what the whole practice and community built around it is for! Someone who goes on a trip supported by other people, who know how to cultivate wisdom and challenge foolishness, is much better off than an autodidact who tries it on their own, maybe missing a core preparatory step or foolishness-challenging skill. Also, maybe this is just 'for extreme cases'; for example, you might want to give psychedelics to almost everyone with PTSD, but almost no one without PTSD. 

[I'm not sure why I'm focusing on psychedelics here, since part of the point of meditation is to get to these states, and he seems pretty bullish on everyone doing meditation. I think it's that the risk for psychedelics seems much higher, and so the story has to be more convincing?]

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-22T15:59:32.257Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 11: Higher States of Consciousness, Part 1

So we have been engaged in a very long discussion because we're talking about a topic that is central--the possibility of enlightenment--to try to make that something plausibly accessible to us rather than something wrapped and shrouded in mesmeric mystique. Instead we've been trying to understand this from a cognitive science perspective that could tell us why these higher states of consciousness might in fact provide a means for the radical self-transformation, self-transcendence, enhanced inner peace, and connectedness to reality that are the central legacy of the Axial Age Revolution and that are still needed today, even if we no longer believe in the mythology of the Axial Age religions and philosophies.

How do we find a place to vouchsafe the precious value that these states can confer on lives in terms of meaning and transcendence when we no longer can understand and articulate and legitimate that in terms of a two world mythology?

So we had been discussing the properties of these higher states of consciousness. We had discussed what the world is like: it's bright, both comprehensive and detailed, intricate and interesting, the world in a grain of sand. It's highly intelligible, it's beautiful, and behind it is a pervasive sense of oneness. The self that is resonating with that world in the higher state of consciousness is a self deeply at peace, like in Plato's description of anagoge. It's experiencing joy, it's experience a kind of deep remembrance (sati) of the being mode, its true and authentic self. It is losing its ego-centrism.

We talked about the connectedness between the self in the world as one so intimate, so flowing, so anagogic that the sense of participation and conformity is achieving a sense of identity, deep and profound being at one with the oneness. But it is so profound that it is almost always described as ineffable.

We then took a look at what might be going on in these states because we're trying to give a descriptively adequate and prescriptively adequate account. We took a look at the continuity hypothesis: that they're the same machinery that's at work in our everyday experience of the fluency of reading into the moments of insight into the insight cascades of flow, and then being exapted even more into mystical experience, and then some of those mystical experiences bring about a quantum change. They bring about a deep transformative experience. 

I proposed to you that what's going on in these higher states of consciousness is something like a state of flow but that the skill, the expertise that is flowing is not this particular skill, of rock climbing or being a martial artist or playing jazz, it's the domain-general skill of getting an optimal grip on the world. So what's happening is people are getting a flow state in their ability to optimally grip on the world. 

This connection to the machinery of insight helps to explain why disruptive strategies are used in order to try to bring about the higher states of consciousness, because disruptive strategies are so central to trying to create insight. They're both naturally disruptive strategies and you can acquire them through mindfulness psychotechnologies. 

We were examining what these disruptive strategies do: they massively increase variation in your processing and that reveals invariants--both good invariants (you get to see more of the real patterns that are remaining unchanged through all the variation, that's what science does across all their variations. We try to find the real patterns that are invariant and what science does is increase the variation, we run experiments. We do all kinds of manipulations and increase variations to try to find what remains invariant because we take that to point out to us what is more real. That's what you're doing!), but it's opening up the invariants of the world, and you're using the flow state's capacity for enhanced implicit processing / implicit learning of complex patterns / tracking of causal patterns to do that, it's also picking up on the bad invariants. 

It's helping to reveal all the ways in which you are systematically misframing. Like a child going through a developmental stage (and I would point you to the work of my former student, friend, colleague Jenson Kim for this idea of development as a systematic form of insight, something he and I are working on together). Like a child going through a developmental stage, realizing not just this error or that error but a systematicity in the way that they're misframing reality and finding a nexus, a point where the insight is not just an intervention in this problem but in a whole class and type of problems. That developmental change of seeing through illusion and into reality that is so central to wisdom is also being afforded by these higher states of consciousness.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-18T16:40:38.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 9: Insight

Last time we were talking more about mindfulness and trying to get an account of how mindfulness can bring about an insight. Not just a single insight into a single problem, but a modal insight, a systemic insight that is fully transformative of the agent-arena relationship and brings about the alleviation of existential distress and the affordance of enhanced meaning. We took a look at that by getting into the machinery of attention and seeing that attention involves two kinds of attentional scaling: attention involves an ability to engage in a transparency-opacity shift and also breaking up gestalt into features / scaling down / the kind of thing we can enhance in meditation, but it also involves an ability to scale up / to move from features to gestalt / and to go from looking at something to looking more deeply into reality.

In mindfulness and meditation we're practicing the scaling down to break inappropriate framing and scaling up to train making better framing. If we can optimize by learning how to fluently flow between the two, bringing in an aspect of fluency and flow that we've already talked about, then we could optimize our capacity for much more comprehensive insight. If we could take it to the depths of our self, like we do in the pure consciousness event, and the depths of reality and the resonant at-one-ment, and we could integrate those, optimize between them, we could bring about Prajna, a kind of non-duality that would be potentially transformative of the whole agent-arena relationship, dissipate modal confusion, enhance meaning in life by bringing about one of the most powerful kinds of mystical experience, give people a sense of enhanced realness that will challenge, encourage, and empower them to transform all of their existence and bring about a tremendous increase in meaning in life.

We talked about some recent cognitive science, including some of my own theoretical and experimental work that seems to be supporting the claim that these higher states of consciousness can bring about these quantum changes, these radical kinds of transformative experience.

Incidentally, when he first introduces 'quantum change' he says "This is known as quantum change. Bad name, bad name. Good theory."

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-17T18:43:44.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 8: The Buddha and "Mindfulness"

So last time we continued looking through the myth of Siddhartha's awakening. We talked about him leaving the palace--the having mode--his attempt to rediscover / recover the being mode, and the difficulty he faced in pursuing self-denial as passionately as he pursued self-indulgence and why this ultimately failed because it's still working within the same operation of trying to have a self. Then we looked at Siddhartha's commitment to the middle path: an attempt to overcome that through the cultivation of mindfulness.

Then we began our exploration of mindfulness. We first looked at what it meant: sati, and remember it's this deep remembering / this recovering of the being mode that leads to a fundamental transformation and alleviates the existential anxiety and distress that Siddhartha was experiencing, and potentially is on offer for us. 

Then we started to take a look at the practice of mindfulness and its attempt to address at least an individual or personal experience of a meaning crisis, and we were doing that because we were trying to investigate more broadly the mindfulness revolution and how that is a response to the meaning crisis within the West. 

We began by noting that the scientific study of mindfulness is misleading in some ways because it begins with a feature list, and as we've noted multiple times feature lists leave out the edios--the structural functional organization--in order to do that we brought out four central characteristics in the feature list: being present, not judging, insightfulness, and reduced reactivity or increased equanimity. Then we noted that what we need to do is to make distinctions between the types of features: between those that are states that we can engage in, actions we can perform, and traits we can cultivate. Once we did we opened up the possibility of asking causal questions: for example, how can the practice of being present produce the trait of insightfulness? Then we could also ask constitutive questions: for example, what's the part-whole relationship between being present and not judging? 

That being said, we then also noted that we have to replace the language of training with the language of explaining. They operate according to different principles and for different goals. We began that by starting to ask "what does it mean to be present?" and then we talked about concentration and we talked about different senses of that and the kind of soft vigilance that's actually conducive of insight discussed by Allen Langer and others. This kind of involvement is very much about conforming to, or being deeply interested in / connected to the structural functional organization of something.

We noted that that took us into a discussion of paying attention and all the while remembering this idea that we got from Siddhartha Gautama: the story about tuning, getting the right tuning optimization. We started to talk about attention and I made the argument that attention is not very well served by the spotlight metaphor. While the metaphor does give us the idea of attention altering salience the metaphor misses a lot of what attention is doing. We began to investigate what's missing by making use of Christopher Mall's idea that attention is not a direct action you perform but it's something you do by modifying something else by optimizing something else. That's why you can successfully pay attention by doing many disparate and different kinds of things. You can pay attention by optimizing your seeing into looking, by optimizing your hearing into listening, by optimizing your seeing and listening into a coordinated tracking of what somebody is saying like you're doing right now. So what we needed was an understanding of attention that could capture the way it's an optimization strategy which lines up with this tuning idea and how such optimization might be linked to a response to existential modal confusion and the alleviation of the suffering found therein.

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T17:29:06.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 5: Plato and the Cave

So last time we discussed the important and foundational work of Plato. The grammar of Western Civilization is basically made up of the Bible and Plato. We will keep coming back to both of those repeatedly in certain ways. 

We talked about Plato's notion of wisdom and how it involved this process of aligning the psyche so as to reduce inner conflict and reduce self-deception (by bullshitting ourselves). That enabled us to achieve one of our meta-desires: the desire for inner peace. We could also align that reduction in self-deception with getting more in contact with what's real and that as we practice tracking real patterns in the world we could then reflectively internalize that back on ourselves.

There was an intimate connection between how we knew the world and knew ourselves. As we increased our ability to pick up on real patterns we could increase our self-knowledge, reduce our self-deception, increase our contact with reality, and that would flow in the process of anagoge, and that would bring about the satisfaction of our second meta-desire to be in contact with realness. So Plato has this idea of wisdom as this anagogic process and we talked about that in connection with his great parable: the parable of the cave.

Replies from: Vaniver, Vaniver, Harry Taussig
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T18:03:38.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As an aside--Vervaeke says,

Now Plato was traumatized by the death of Socrates. It's deeply disturbing to him. Why I think that is because he keeps coming back to it and trying to understand. He wanted to understand how is it that the city he loved, the city he belonged to--Athens--could have killed this man that he admired and loved so deeply. How is it that his beloved Athens killed his beloved Socrates?

So where Socrates had this dilemma given to him by the gods, Plato has this dilemma given to him by the death of Socrates. Plato wanted to understand how people could be so foolish.

My hot take before this series was that Socrates probably had it coming, tho I think the previous episode gave me a much more positive impression of Socrates. [There's a thing Vervaeke will do a lot in this series, where he tries to distance "talking about X the actual historical figure" (about which there might be a lot of controversy) and "talking about X as understood by the intellectual history" (about which there might be much less controversy). You might not think you have good enough records of Jesus's existence to be confident about what actually happened with Jesus or whether he even existed, but you should think you have good enough records of Christian theology's thoughts about Jesus to be confident about the history of ideas. Here I'm both noting that "I wasn't there", hence the 'probably', but also am floating a hypothesis that hinges on the facts on the ground.]


A few years ago, it seemed to me like one of the big problems with LessWrong was that the generativity and selectivity were unbalanced. There wasn't much new material posted on LW, and various commenters said "well, the thing we should do is be even harsher to authors, so that they produce better stuff!", and when I went around asking the authors what it would take for them to write more on LW, they said "well, putting up with harsh comments is a huge drawback to posting on LW, so I don't."

Now, it would have been one thing if it were the top writers criticizing things--if, say, Eliezer or Scott or whoever had said "actually, I don't really want my posts to be seen next to low-quality posts by <authors>" or had been skewering the flaws in those posts/comments. [Indeed, many great Sequences posts begin by quoting a reaction in the comments to a previous post and then dissecting why the reaction is wrong.] But instead, the commenter most frequently complained about by the former authors was a person who did not themselves write posts.

Now, the specific person I had been thinking of had been around for a long time. In fact, when they first started posting, their comments reminded me of my comments from a few years earlier, and so I marked them as someone to watch. But whereas I acculturated to LW (and I remember uprooting a few deep habits to do so!), I didn't see it happen with them, and then realized that when I had been around, there had been lots of old LWers to acculturate to, whereas now the 'typical comment' was this sort of criticism, instead of the old LW spirit.

"Oh," I said in a flash of insight. "This is why they executed Socrates." 

That is, imagine you're responsible for some Athenian institution; you have the strong belief that the survival of your society depends on how much people buy into the Athenian institutions, and how much they buy into a status-allocation structure whereby the people who sweat and build receive lots of credit, and the people who idly criticize receive little credit. From this viewpoint, Socrates looks like someone who has found a clever exploit [LW · GW]; a tactic wherein one can win any fight by only attacking and never defending. One can place immense burdens on any positive action ("Oh, so this is annoying? How would you define annoying?") while not accepting any burdens of their own ("I'm just asking questions."). One of Socrates's innovations is a sort of shamelessness--if someone responds with "only a fool doesn't understand what 'annoying' means!", Socrates is happy to respond with "indeed, I am a fool, so can you explain it to me?", whereas someone more cooperative would bow to what Everybody Knows [LW · GW].

Now, one Socrates is good to have around, in the same way that one court jester is good to have around. Dilbert did a lot to improve the corporate culture of the US, as people started asking themselves "oh wait, am I the pointy-haired boss in this scenario?", or employees found it easier to coordinate around mocking particular sorts of bad behavior. This commenter, in a healthy community of lots of authors and lots of rewarding discussion, likely would have been a good addition to the soup. But "corrupting the youth" is serious--existentially serious! If it looks like a whole generation wants to grow up to be jesters instead of kings and knights and counsellors, then the very polis itself is at risk. [And, like, risk of murder and enslavement; existential questions are big deals!] If it looked like the next generation of LWers were going to acculturate to being this sort of nonconstructive critic, well, that seemed like reason to ban that commenter, or shut down LW to make it a monument instead of a ghost town.

Note that this doesn't even require that Socrates himself is 'doing it wrong' or is unbalanced or so on--it just matters that people imitating Socrates are discouraging builders and not themselves building anything. [My guess is that Socrates was in fact 'unbalanced,' in the way that you should expect pioneers to be by default; in part, I remember thinking he had a principled stance against writing.]

Once I read a book which began by noting that Socrates/Plato/Aristotle might not have been the first philosophers / people to ask their questions or give their answers. But they were the first that successfully started the philosophical tradition that made its way to us. This proposes the flip side: you can imagine some other city, in Greece or elsewhere, wherein the social credit allocation system is hacked by a Socratic cancer, and then the society implodes, and it didn't start a philosophical tradition that made it to us.

Again, did this actually happen? Idk, maybe Socrates just got on the wrong side of a corrupt gangster or w/e, and then next generation was fine / improved by Socrates, or if this had actually been happening Socrates would have become a meta-contrarian, continuing to lead them towards The Good. [I do think 'internalizing Socrates' (in the way Vervaeke will talk about) is a good idea! I'm less sure about emulating Socrates.]

But, like, there's a claim I saw and wished I had saved the citation of, where a university professor teaching an ethics class or w/e gets their students to design policies that achieve ends, and finds that the students (especially more 'woke' ones) have very sharp critical instincts, can see all of the ways in which policies are unfair or problematic or so on, and then are very reluctant to design policies themselves, and are missing the skills to do anything that they can't poke holes in (or, indeed, missing the acceptance that sometimes tradeoffs require accepting that the plan will have problems). In creative fields, this is sometimes called the Taste Gap, where doing well is hard in part because you can recognize good work before you can do it, and so the experience of making art is the experience of repeatedly producing disappointing work.

In order to get the anagogic ascent, you need both the criticism of Socrates and the courage to keep on producing disappointing work (and thus a system that rewards those in balanced ways).

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-12T17:34:44.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A core bit of this episode that didn't make it into Vervaeke's summary is the idea of 'structural functional organization'. The core example is a bird; if you tried to define a bird as the 'sum' of its parts, you would be missing out on the difference between a bird (where all the parts are carefully integrated together into a particular structure) and a bloody pile of parts (if they're cluelessly jumbled together). The intricate relationships between things that make up its structure determine its function, which determines its identity in an important way.

This, of course, ties into the whole project. You need to not just have a list of facts about the mind, but a structural functional organizational account of the mind.

comment by Harry Taussig · 2021-05-13T19:31:40.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My favorite thought from this lecture was the idea that our discounting of future possibilities is adaptive, and a failure to discount unlikely futures could be a cause of anxiety. If all the ways you might die in 30 years was as salient to you as what you are going to eat for breakfast, your mind would never stop worrying.

In times of extreme comfort like ours, it is much easier to highly value and consider the future. This makes it easy to overthink the possible impacts of present actions on the future, and while those impacts are real, they are often so hard to predict over the vast range of possibilities that they are worth discounting and disregarding. 

One of the common modern recommendations for worrying less and being happier is to do more hard things and struggle more. Present struggles force you to highly value the present—things that make you struggle are going to make you find the present salient, and figure out how to improve the present quickly. There's no room to think about the future when doing hard things in the present, so challenging yourself in this way may help us retain our adaptive discounting of future possibilities in our comfortable environment. 


comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-10T15:57:40.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Episode 3: Continuous Cosmos and Modern World Grammar

So last time we discussed the Axial Revolution and in particular how it moved into ancient Israel. We talked about the advent of the psychotechnology of time as cosmic history: as a narrative in which there's an open future and your actions (the moral quality of your actions) can determine that future. You participate along with God in the creation of that future.

This brings with it the idea of moral progress: the increase in justice. This is how we move from the less real world to the more real world. For the ancient Israelites it's understood as a journey through time and space historically. We talked about the kind of God that the God of the Bible is: how he is in fact the god of this open future and particularly he intervenes at moments of Kairos; turning points where he tries to bring people back on course.

We talked about the sense of faith as the sense of being on course, being able to sense how history is flowing and unfolding, how you are participating in that story, how you are shaping it and being shaped by it in a tightly reciprocal manner and that sin is the deviation from that. What is needed is to wake us back up, to bring us back on course; we talked about how the prophets represented that and they represent increasingly that Axial vision of the moral redemption of history.

We then turned to look at how the Axial Revolution was coming into ancient Greece and in particular two figures. We're looking at two figures: Pythagoras and Socrates. Last time we talked about Pythagoras and how he represents an exaptation of that shamanic behavior of altering the state of consciousness, entering into something like a soul flight, but how for Pythagoras that had been allied with the psychotechnology that was being emphasized in Greece: rational argumentation, the discovery of rational patterns in the world. 

Pythagoras of course is famous for discovering that music can be expressed mathematically; he at least associated his school with things like the Pythagorean theorem, this idea that we can enhance our capacity to pick up on the real patterns in the world even if those are not readily apparent to us. By coming into a direct awareness of those patterns through our rational insight and faculties we can transform ourselves, and Pythagoras changes the shamanic soul flight into a release, a freedom from imprisonment in the body, and we fly free. So soul flight has been turned into a radical kind of self-transcendence in which we are liberating ourselves from the illusory world as we more and more conform to the rational patterns that dictate the structure of reality.

Replies from: Vaniver, Slider
comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-10T16:52:41.815Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[The two-worlds self-transcendence view] is a mythological way of thinking which allows us to articulate and train the psychotechnologies of self-transcendence, wisdom, and enhanced meaning. But the problem is this mythology is failing for us now. The scientific worldview is destroying the possibility of this for us in a way that might seem sort of cosmically ironic. The scientific worldview is returning us to a continuous cosmos; there is no radical difference in kind between you and the primates that you evolved from naturally.

There isn't some radical difference in kind between your mind and your embodied existence. Science is levelling the world. We're returning to a one world.

But if we can no longer live in this mythology--and that's what mythologies are! They have to be livable. People claim to believe this. Don't tell me what you believe, tell me what you practice. Tell me what's livable for you. For most of us, we can't live [the two-worlds view] anymore. We still talk this way, but we can't live it.

So here's part of the problem: how do we salvage the ability to cultivate wisdom, self-transcendence, enhance meaning, overcome self-deception, realize who we are and how the world is, when we can no longer use the mythological worldview in which it was born?

This feels like the central bit of this lecture to me, both because it points at the right way to understand myth and is also highly relevant to old conflicts between epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality.

His sense of myth seems very similar to Peterson's [LW · GW]: the world as forum for action. [Vervaeke will use the phrase 'agent-arena relationship' a lot.] The materialist worldview is concerned with the transition probability between states; the mythological worldview is concerned with the value function of states and the policy over actions. [Those are connected but importantly distinct.] Modern myths are things like "go to college" or "recycle plastics"--by which I don't mean that college isn't real, or that going to college doesn't have real benefits, or that you shouldn't recycle. I mean something more like "choosing not to go to college, or to not recycle, feels distant from propositional beliefs in an important way." Think of The Fireplace Delusion by Sam Harris. [I once attended a lecture where the professor gave a coherent and clear argument against recycling, and then at the end of the lecture he stood by the trash cans / recycling bins to see how it would alter attendee behavior; at most 10% fewer people recycled that for other, 'control' lectures. If asked, people's sense was less "I wasn't convinced" and more "being convinced about the claims in the lecture doesn't shift my sense of whether or not it's good for me to recycle."]

So the claim here is not just "well, we used to believe in God and now we don't", the claim is something more like "there used to be a strong shared motivation to do this sort of self-improvement, deepening in connection, and enhancement of wisdom, that was more like 'go to college' than it was like a propositional belief." [Noting, of course, that only about a third of Americans today graduate from college, and many more don't have the sense that they should or could go to college; in the past, presumably many people didn't have this strong shared motivation. But the past had bubbles too, and here I'm interested mostly in the bubbles that were ancestors of my / our bubble.]

Earlier he talks about wisdom and prudence in the pre-Axial societies. I'll characterize wisdom as 'the thing that leads to winning', and so prudence / rationality was something like "knowing your place in the power structure in order to live long and prosper." Very materialist, very temporal / secular. Post Axial Revolution, there's a sense of the 'material world' which is temporary and fake in some important way, and the 'immaterial world' which is timeless and real in some important way. Wisdom now involves not getting tricked by the temporary materialist games, and instead doing the thing that's more important or deeper; winning at the real game instead of the distraction.

Some rationalists talk sometimes (jokingly? unclear) about Bayes points as a score that they accumulate over the course of their life, and then eventually are judged on. This is very not the 'continuous cosmos' view, and instead is in the 'two-worlds' view. The thing where one's commitment to epistemic rationality is deeper than their commitment to instrumental rationality feels like it has to be bound up in the two-worlds approach somehow; if you actually only cared about winning in the materialist sense, your behavior would be different. There's something about the rationalist allergy to self-deception that I think can be justified in the continuous cosmos, but it takes work.

comment by Slider · 2021-04-05T11:08:34.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When wondering about the connection between "cosmos" and "cosmetics" my thought was that cosmetics is about apperances, that make-up conceals and presents the thing as different. The kind of meaning he was going for was about "revealing" which was pretty much in the opposite direction.

The connections can seem a bit tenous but it feels better when one can see that he knows what he is trying to do with them. Althought it is a more goal-oriented presentation rather than a dispassionate and evenhanded search of the handiest direction. And I guess there is also value in giving an example of the thing being talked about rather than just talking about it.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-03-09T14:19:46.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious if you can summarize the relevance to embedded agency. This many hours of listening seems like quite a commitment, even at 2x. Is it really worth it? (Sometimes I have a commute or other time when it's great to have something to listen to, but this isn't currently true.)

Replies from: Yoav Ravid, Vaniver
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-03-09T14:40:00.810Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably the main idea Vaniver is talking here is Relevance Realization, which John starts talking about in episode 28 (He stays on the topic for at least a few episodes, see the playlist). But if that also seems like much, you can read his paper Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science. Might not be quite as in depth, but it goes over the important stuff.

Of course, i might be wrong about which idea Vaniver was talking about :)

comment by Vaniver · 2021-03-09T17:06:58.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious if you can summarize the relevance to embedded agency

Only sort of. Yoav correctly points to Vervaeke's new contribution, but I think I'm more impressed with his perspective than with his hypothesis? 

That is, he thinks the core thing underlying wisdom is relevance realization, which I'm going to simply describe as the ability to identify what bits of the world (physical and logical) influence each other, in a way which drives how you should look at the world and what actions you should take. [If you think about AlphaGo, 'relevance realization' is like using the value network to drive the MCTS, but for a full agent, it bears more deeply on more aspects of cognition.]

But this feels like one step: yes, you have determined that wisdom is about realizing relevance, but how to do you that? What does it look like to do that successfully, or poorly?

Here, the history of human thought becomes much more important. "The human condition", and the perennial problems, and all that are basically the problems of embedded agency (in the context of living in a civilization, at least). Humans have built up significant practices and institutions around dealing with those problems. Here I'm more optimistic about, say, you or Scott hearing Vervaeke describe the problems and previous solutions and drawing your own connections to Embedded Agency and imagining your own solutions, more than I am excited about you just tasting his conclusions and deciding whether to accept or reject them.

Like, saying "instead of building clever robots, we need to build wise robots" doesn't make much progress. Saying "an aspect of human wisdom is this sort of metacognition that searches for insights that determine how one is misframing reality" leads to "well, can we formalize that sort of metacognition?".

[In particular, a guess I have about something that will be generative is grappling with the way humans have felt that wisdom was a developmental trajectory--a climbing up / climbing towards / going deeper--more than a static object, or a state that one reaches and then is complete. Like, I notice the more I think about human psychological developmental stages, the more I view particular formalizations of how to think and be in the world as "depicting a particular stage" instead of "depicting how cognition has to be."]