Crowley on Religious Experience

post by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-26T22:59:39.625Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 89 comments

Reply to: The Sacred Mundane, BHTV: Yudkowsky vs. Frank on "Religious Experience"

Edward Crowley was a man of many talents. He studied chemistry at Cambridge - a period to which he later attributed his skeptical scientific outlook - but he soon abandoned the idea of a career in science and turned to his other passions. For a while he played competitive chess at the national level. He took to mountain-climbing, and became one of the early 20th century's premier mountaineers, co-leading the first expedition to attempt K2 in the Himalayas. He also enjoyed writing poetry and travelling the world, making it as far as Nepal and Burma in an era when steamship was still the fastest mode of transportation and British colonialism was still a thin veneer over dangerous and poorly-explored areas.

But his real interest was mysticism. He travelled to Sri Lanka, where he studied meditation and yoga under some of the great Hindu yogis. After spending several years there, he achieved a state of mystical attainment the Hindus call dhyana, and set about trying to describe and promote yoga to the West.

He was not the first person to make the attempt, but he was certainly the most interesting. Although his parents were religious fanatics and his father a fundamentalist preacher, he himself had been an atheist since childhood, and he considered the vast majority of yoga to be superstitious claptrap. He set about eliminating all the gods and chants and taboos and mysterian language, ending up with a short system of what he considered empirically validated principles for gaining enlightenment in the most efficient possible way.

Reading Crowley's essay on mysticism and yoga at age seventeen rewrote my view of religion. I had always wondered about eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, which seemed to have some underlying truth to all their talk of "enlightenment" and "meditation" but which seemed too vague and mysterious for my liking. Crowley stripped the mystery away in one fell swoop.

When listening to Eliezer debate Adam Frank on "religious experience", I was disappointed but not surprised to hear just how little they had to say. Even Frank, who was fascinated enough to write a book about it, considered it little more than a sense that something was inspiring or especially impressive. I quoted a bit of Crowley's essay on the thread, and people seemed to like it and want to know more.

But I am very reluctant to share, and do so now only after being specifically requested by a few people. You see, I have been trying to paint a sympathetic view of Crowley over the past few paragraphs. With the unsympathetic view you are familiar already. Under his nickname "Aleister", he wrote some of history's most influential occultist works. Even in this domain, he held himself to a high rationalist standard, recording that he tested each spell and ritual beforehand and passed on only the ones that actually worked as advertised.

...I don't know what that means either. Either he was one of those psychopaths gifted with the ability to lie perfectly and absolutely, or a psychotic genius able to induce hallucinations in himself at will. Crowley himself occasionally endorsed this latter explanation, but after pondering it a while decided he didn't care. The important thing, he wrote, was to determine what techniques produced what results. After that, the philosophers could determine whether they were physical or mentally mediated. Besides, he said, the entities he summoned were so different from himself that if they represented faculties of his mind, they were ones to which he had no conscious access.

My point is that I am going to link you to Crowley's essay on mysticism, yoga, and religious experience, and that you might get more out of it if you tried to avoid any bias upon seeing the name "Aleister Crowley" on the title page. Yes, I feel properly guilty posting this on a rationalism site, but if we're going to talk about religious experience we might as well listen to the people who have had some.

Although it is Less Wrong tradition to rewrite a theory rather than simply link to it, it would be inappropriate in this case. Getting Crowley filtered would be like having someone summarize Godel, Escher Bach to you - you might learn a few things, but you'd lose the chance to enjoy the superb writing. It's a long essay, but not so long you can't read it in one sitting. Even just reading the Preface gives an idea of the theory. Without further ado: Crowley on Religious Experience.

I post this essay to clarify why I believe three things. First, that both Eliezer and Adam miss the point of religious experience. Second, that certain seemingly supernatural or silly beliefs can be more reasonable than they appear (see for example Crowley's explanation of religious laws on "virtue" and "purity"). Third, that some mystics'  work is of sufficient relevance to rationalists to be worth study.

89 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-03-27T00:42:48.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to India to be enlightened. After seeing that the nation claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowledge was full of hunger, ignorance, squalor, poverty, prejudice, and disease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for enlightenment.

EDIT: I didn't mean this as a rebuttal. Yvain is being brave posting this, and I don't mean to jump on him.

Replies from: listic
comment by listic · 2009-03-27T14:46:22.353Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you please quote the source?

This seems like a well-sounding anecdote, which I appreciate. But I would like the facts.

Personally I doubt that Jobs learned only just that in India. I'm willing to find out just what he found there.

Replies from: badger
comment by badger · 2009-03-28T03:13:15.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here is the best source I can find: http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/36/04717208/0471720836.pdf This appears to be the first chapter of iCon by Jeffrey Young and William Simon.

The story of Jobs in India starts on page 23.

From page 25: “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realize that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together.”

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-03-27T01:14:42.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I feel properly guilty posting this on a rationalism site

Um... why is guilt proper here? Rationalists win, Bayesians condition on all evidence, and so on.

Replies from: Emile, Yvain
comment by Emile · 2009-03-27T08:53:47.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ten bucks say that sometimes in the future some religious person will use this post (or a followup) as evidence that rationalists worship Satan.

Replies from: Cameron_Taylor
comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:07:21.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I were to take that bet, when exactly would I expect to get paid?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-27T13:57:45.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe this essay, despite being written by a mystic and involving mystical theories and little formal scientific evidence, is likely true and of value to rationalists.

But every crank or New Ager believes that their pet theory, despite being mystical and lacking scientific evidence, is likely true and of value to rationalists. So from the Inside View, I think the essay is valuable, but from the Outside View I'm forced to admit it might not be.

I chose to post it after people reacted positively to the comments I made based on it, but I still feel uncomfortable transgressing the general principle, hence the guilt.

Replies from: Annoyance, SoullessAutomaton, Cameron_Taylor, Nick_Tarleton, Nick_Tarleton
comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-27T17:09:22.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is especially important for rationalists to be confronted with things of potential value that they have ignored or rejected without rational grounds.

Cast off your guilt, sir! Speak your mind and speak it loud.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-27T14:10:30.258Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even things that are untrue may provide information about the mental experiences of the person who believes them.

Religion and mysticism are far too common to simply dismiss as nonsense; it behooves those of us who reject them fundamentally to understand better their hold on the minds of others.

Replies from: Yvain, ciphergoth
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-27T14:51:43.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you, but we still can't go posting every bit of falsehood or New Age flimflam on Less Wrong just because there's probably something interesting behind it. A general article on the mental phenomena that underlie astrology would be interesting, but an astrologer's article on what it means for the moon to be in Aquarius, presented without comment, would not be.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-27T14:12:21.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that dismissing them as nonsense, and seeking to better understand their hold, are mutually exclusive. We should do both.

Replies from: SoullessAutomaton
comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-27T14:18:40.142Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nonsense is not the same thing as falsehoods.

For comparison, I am happy to dismiss as true nonsense, and give no further consideration to, the significance of nature's 4-day simultaneous harmonic time cube.

Replies from: Yvain, fractalman
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-27T14:54:16.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are stupid and evil, have been scammed by criminal educators you one-ist anti-intelligent fool.

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2011-02-27T09:31:31.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, I had to actually go read (well, skim) that abortion of a site before I realised why you seemed to suddenly turn into a troll ;)

But I have to say - your sentence makes too much sense to really reflect that site. For one thing - your sentence isn't in newspaper-headline grammar. All cube truth denied!

Replies from: David_Gerard
comment by David_Gerard · 2011-02-27T15:16:02.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although I must say I've personally adopted the phrase "educated evil and stupid" as it applies so well to so many people.

comment by fractalman · 2013-05-28T06:19:46.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My eyes! my EYES! oh, why, oh why did I click on that link!

(I am now laughing. It is a tortured, whimpering sort of laughter. )

edit2: "4-day...cube". that, alone, should have thrown a compiler error, and I should have recognized that as quite sufficient evidence for the stupidity of the contents... As an upside, I might be able to grok Nabokov for the next two weeks. best case scenario: the effect wears off the moment my nabokov paper is turned in.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:07:40.772Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True?

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-03-28T00:19:34.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm still confused. Which general principle?

Replies from: Yvain
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-28T00:40:57.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Outside view less biased than inside view.

Replies from: Nick_Tarleton
comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-03-28T03:35:54.177Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should you feel bad about transgressing a general principle when you have reasons to, you know these reasons, and you consider yourself capable of evaluating the validity of these reasons? (As opposed to the structureless black-box belief "this essay is valuable".) The outside view also says that you have, at best, high-average reasoning ability and have no business writing for Less Wrong.

I can see it making sense to disclaim a greater-than-average chance of biased evaluation in this case, but not guilt. Without people who can successfully use the inside view in some cases being willing to do so, no progress can be made.

Replies from: Cameron_Taylor, None
comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:08:14.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should you feel guilty ever? Lame feeling.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-28T12:16:39.915Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

deleted

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-03-28T00:17:20.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm still confused. Which general principle are you transgressing?

comment by gwern · 2009-03-29T14:49:03.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A quote by Crowley (The Confessions of Aleister Crowley) may apply to some of the comments here:

"The conscience of the world is so guilty that it always assumes that people who investigate heresies must be heretics; just as if a doctor who studies leprosy must be a leper. Indeed, it is only recently that science has been allowed to study anything without reproach."

comment by Emile · 2009-03-27T14:26:21.504Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that mystical experience, yoga and drugs are underestimated by rationalists, because of their associations with the new age crazies.

It's a mistake, the same as if one downplayed quantum mechanics because of the countless crazy new age "interpretations" of QM.

Replies from: timtyler, Annoyance
comment by timtyler · 2009-03-27T18:54:24.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dawkins and Dennett don't seem to understand, anyway.

Replies from: Cameron_Taylor, ciphergoth
comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:03:54.007Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dawkins and Dennett don't seem to understand, anyway.

I'm confused? Can you explain what you mean? Are those two missing something about Quantum Mechanics or some benefits of mystical experience?

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2009-03-28T18:35:58.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mystical experience - not the countless crazy new age "interpretations" quantum mechanics.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-27T19:52:27.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What gives you that impression?

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2009-03-28T18:35:07.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dawkins mainly because of his promotion of scientific awe, but see also:

"Persinger & Dawkins" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_-txbHNyOY

Dennett, mostly because of this, 58 minutes in:

"Sam Harris at AAI 07" http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2089733934372500371

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-27T17:07:58.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Certainly. It's also a mistake, though, to treat actual QM as a serious matter because the general understanding of it is so flaky.

Quite a few "interpretations" of quantum mechanics, even those held by actual (and even great) scientists, are nonsense. Perhaps one of the reasons why we find it so hard to understand is that we take it too seriously.

Replies from: Emile, Nick_Novitski
comment by Emile · 2009-03-27T20:21:45.320Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe some scientists' interpretation of QM are wrong, but it's a whole different league of "wrong" compared to say the 200k google results for "quantum + chakra".

comment by Nick_Novitski · 2009-03-27T17:50:11.902Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please say more on which interpretations are nonsense, and why. As someone who wants to protect myself from being taken in by complex falsehoods apparently worthy of respect, I greatly value your better knowledge of them.

comment by jedharris · 2009-03-28T06:47:08.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad to see this. Crowley was a very accurate observer in many cases.

Henk Barendregt wrote a recent account; he's a professor of math and computer science at Nijmegen (Netherlands) and an adjunct at CMU.

The comment that this is about developing skills is very accurate. Drugs can induce similar states but they don't help to develop the cognitive control skills. Unfortunately we have very few disciplines that teach the development of cognitive self-management without a lot of peculiar window dressing.

Regarding Crowley's comment on his later experiences, Wilson Van Dusen reports similar phenomena in these investigations of the hallucinations of mental patients (and of Emanuel Swedenborg). The most valuable aspect is the phenomenology rather than the speculation about causes (though that is also interesting).

Summarizing, it looks like the brain can operate in various modes other than the ones we find "normal" and to some extent can be switched between modes by skills that can be learned through training and practice. In some cases access to modes other than "normal" ones may be helpful.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-03-27T00:23:46.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam Harris has made similar comments about Eastern spirituality.

Additionally, many descriptions I've read of what people have experienced during meditation are disturbingly similar to this woman's experience of having a stroke.

Replies from: nazgulnarsil, Cameron_Taylor
comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-03-27T06:33:10.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Enlightenment" and "nirvana" are probably ways of hacking the brain to enter certain states at will rather than because of external stimuli. I suspect as our understanding of the brain increases we will eventually have "meditation machines" that simulate this effect.

Replies from: jscn, cousin_it
comment by jscn · 2009-03-27T20:14:04.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've recently started reading a book on the changes which Zen meditation seems to cause on neurology and consciousness, authored by a neurologist. The premise seems to fit with what you're saying.

I've heard that some meditative states (as measured by brain wave patterns) can be induced through the use of devices employing flashing lights and audio interference at certain frequencies ("binaural beats"). I've never really spent the time to investigate it seriously and there seems to be a fair amount of new-agey crap surrounding the idea, but it may have some merit.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-03-27T07:18:09.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We already have drugs of various kinds. I think a determined person today could create a "God drug" that mirrors the experiences Crowley describes. Today's technology would suffice but you'd need lower ethical standards for experimentation.

Replies from: nazgulnarsil
comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-03-27T07:59:57.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most drugs are extremely crude. Pleasure drugs usually work simply by inducing your body to dump all its supply of endorphins into your system at once.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/meditation/

I think at some point we'll be able to induce brain states without such crude methods (think of the inducer in The Lathe of Heaven if you've read it)

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-27T17:25:59.356Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

NLP includes a technique for mentally recreating some drug-induced states; I've never tried it myself, since I've never taken any drugs. But perhaps those people here who have tried drugs might give it a shot and see if it works. It's in chapter 9 of the book, "Change Your Mind... And Keep The Change". You might be able to find it in a library near you.

If it works, be sure to report back with the specific kinesthetic strategies you discover for useful or interesting states. ;-)

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:09:43.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stroke?

comment by taryneast · 2010-12-12T15:43:22.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sadly the link to Crowley's work is no longer valid. I've also tried the wayback machine - which also does not have a record of the link.

Crowley wrote a lot, so I'm unsure where to even begin looking for the particular essay you refer to here. Can you give me a clue where I might start?

Replies from: hairyfigment, gwern
comment by hairyfigment · 2011-02-27T06:51:11.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you figured out Yvain meant this, but you may not have seen my warning: watch out for the quotation marks. Don't let Crowley lull you into ignoring them.

Also, the site I linked has the vast majority of Crowley's writings for free (in html form).

comment by gwern · 2010-12-12T19:02:45.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the OP's post, they mention that they previously produced a number of quotes from said essay.

That link points to http://lesswrong.com/lw/57/the_sacred_mundane/3jj#comments where Yvain does extensively quote Crowley.

That done, it is trivial to run a Google search on substrings, like: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22In+the+course+of+our+concentration+we+noticed+that+the+contents%22

Google instantly turns up at least 3 citations to Crowley's Magick: Book 4.

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2010-12-12T19:16:22.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you :)

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-03-28T06:42:29.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hrm... Interesting, though having read this I find myself actually a bit scared of such states.

What I mean is this: I have this vague suspicion from reading Crowley's essay that it basically all these exercises, among other things, effectively hack both our goal systems and the part of ourselves that, well, keeps track of what's "us" vs something else. While messing with that a bit may be a potentially interesting experience, I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to end up in a state where some earlier selected arbitrary object is then identified with me... That is, to the point that I think of that object as myself just as much as, well, any other part of me.

Or maybe I'm being stupid here?

Replies from: jedharris, crazytalk
comment by jedharris · 2009-03-28T15:52:39.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are some real risks, but also some sources of tremendous fear that turn out to be illusory. Here I'm not talking about fear like "I imagine something bad" but fear as in "I was paralyzed by heartstopping terror and couldn't go on".

The most fundamental point is that our bodies have layers and layers of homeostasis and self-organizing that act as safety nets. "You" don't have to hold yourself together or make sure you identify with your own body -- that's automatic. You probably could identify yourself as a hamburger with the right meditation techniques or drugs, but it wouldn't last. The lower levels would kick in and re-establish your survival oriented awareness of your body, etc.

On the other hand, undermining the stable mental organization we all identify as "me" produces extreme terror and disorientation. Henk Barendregt describes this in more detail than Crowley, with less rhetorical decoration. Again, however, the self-organizing processes in the body and brain regenerate some locally stable sense of "me" even if the previous "me" is completely disrupted. Apparently we can't function without some temporarily stable "me", but with enough practice we get used to dissolving the current "me" and letting a new one form.

The real risks from drugs are probably greater than the real risks from meditation, just because drugs can get you into states without developing commensurate skills and self-perceptions, so you may have a harder time regrouping. Persistent problems aren't due to e.g. identifying with arbitrary outside objects, but rather getting into some internal more or less stable state. Paranoia is an example of the kind of state I mean, but too vague to be really useful for analysis. Unfortunately I don't know of any good vocabulary for analyzing the set of states that are possible.

My sense is that getting "stuck" in in an inconvenient state via meditation is extremely rare. Much more common is that this sort of discipline expands the range of states accessible.

Replies from: Psy-Kosh
comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-03-29T01:11:51.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I'm saying is that I'm not sure this doesn't amount to, well, hacking my goal system in a bad way, in a way I ought to be rationally terrified of.

And I think actually ending up in a state where I think of such and such random object as "actually me", is itself perhaps a bad thing unless it's brief or I can remember and act on the knowledge that it's not.

ie, if I was uploaded, and a convenient little interface was handed to me that let me click a button to twiddle what amounts to the pleasure centers in my brain, I'd want to do the equivalent of run away screaming rather than try it once.

Because once is enough to start poking and prodding at the reinforcement mechanisms/goal system of my brain, etc etc...

ie, now it's not all that obvious to me that these states don't amount to a crude form of "hacking my own mind into a limited wirehead state"

Which, of course, once it happens, will be in such a way that it would also trigger the stuff that gives a sense of satisfaction of "job well done", thus I'll end up believing it to be noble, wonderful, etc etc etc...

This is the nature of my concern. Perhaps it's silly, but having read Crowley's essay, that's kinda an impression I'm getting about these mental states. Basically, a severe hack that alters my goal system in ways that my current goal system may even be absolutely horrified at if I really understood what was going on.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, though, my fears unfounded.

Actually, something I'd be interested in is hearing from rationalists, especially some here, who have actually experienced these states. Not just "meditated and tried to reach these states", but actually got there or been in those states.

I understand there're a bunch of low level "safety nets" built into us, that makes sense. But also, that may be why these techniques/training is so difficult. Because we're subverting those bits of ourselves. I'm interested in self observing, etc etc...

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-29T05:14:48.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be useful to think about the simple fact that if you're a hunter of small game, you're probably going to spend an awful lot of time sitting around staring at things, and that maybe evolution has a good reason for wanting it to feel good... not to mention developing your ability to concentrate, if your hunting pattern requires such concentration. What's more, it's a kind of exercise that humans haven't gotten much of since we switched to agriculture.

Note, too, that it's only since we've had agriculture that we started having religions offering salvation and release from suffering... maybe there's a connection there.

Replies from: Psy-Kosh, John_D
comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-03-29T06:16:30.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hrm, that's a point, though I suspect even in our hunter gatherer days, we didn't push ourselves to the extent these practices do.

But still, you do have a point.

comment by John_D · 2013-11-14T13:52:59.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting observation. It is hard to find an in-depth article in Google Scholar on the idea that meditation or similar practices evolved to help us deal with stress and hone concentration. A recent study showed that nuns and monks who prayed or meditate showed increased activity in the parts of the brain implicated in analytical thinking and stress management.

My question is are these simply tricks we learned to deal with stress, or were they are part of human evolution to help cope with stress?

http://intro2psych.wordpress.com/2008/03/11/and-this-is-your-brain-on-prayers/

comment by crazytalk · 2009-03-29T23:05:51.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I cannot believe on a site supposedly devoted to rationality, you appear to be seriously discussing the English occultist, Qabalist, heroin addict, and "ceremonial sex magician." Are you seriously suggesting we begin reading Tarot cards, and invoking angels with Egyptian names with "magic wands?" Forgive me, but Yvain, are you recruiting for the OTO here? This is crazy talk. I mean, seriously deranged. You are NOT accurately describing who Crowley was or what he believed.

Replies from: loqi
comment by loqi · 2009-03-29T23:18:43.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I cannot believe in a comment supposedly devoted to rationality, you appear to be seriously dismissing someone based on the fact that they fact that they took drugs. Are you seriously suggesting we never look for any ideas that don't originate in whatever in-group we've declared ourselves a part of? Forgive me, but crazytalk, are you recruiting for Evangelical Christians here? This is crazytalk. I mean, seriously reading a lot into one reference to a pretty reasonable essay. You are NOT accurately describing what Yvain said or what he advocates.

Replies from: crazytalk
comment by crazytalk · 2009-03-29T23:32:12.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suggest loql you read Liber 777 for yourself and then tell me how rational Crowley was. Clearly none of you have a real clue who he was or what he wrote. He was a first-class crackpot. Downvote me all you want, but that just says more about how off-base LW has become.

Replies from: Yvain, loqi, ciphergoth
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-29T23:57:59.175Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've read a couple of his things and I know how insane he can be. I freely admit that he was an utter raving loony. I just happen to think this particular essay offers a plausible explanation of religious experience. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Have you read the essay? Do you disagree with it? Would you have objected to it if I'd published it under my own name?

comment by loqi · 2009-03-30T00:04:26.623Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't claim that Crowley was rational. This seems to be a trend in your commentary, along with a heavy reliance on ad hominem.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-30T05:26:10.081Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Downvote me all you want, but that just says more about how off-base LW has become.

"Downvote me all you want" is just always a faux pas. "This place has gone way downhill" is rarely worth saying anywhere, and is additionally silly in so new a community as LW. I agree with you about Crowley (who I learned about due to sharing a surname with him) but please don't reach for these cliches.

comment by Vladimir_Gritsenko · 2009-03-27T20:13:39.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But... why?

Suppose there is such a thing as spiritual enlightenment that is not captured by conventional religion, suppose neither Eliezer nor Adam get it. Further, suppose you attain it. Sure, it's a novel experience, but so are drugs for many folks. What do you expect to get out of it?

"No free lunch" is a basic tenet in knowledge acquisition. Want to know how life emerged? I'm sure we can all suggest books, university courses, museums, documentaries... but meditation? Mysticism? Yogis? They all may be a wonderful experience, with a feel of enlightenment to them, but they cannot impart any novel knowledge apart from themselves.

Another commenter suspects that mystical experience is underestimated by rationalists. Well, what is their true value? What knowledge do they carry?

Replies from: pjeby, algekalipso, None, AlanCrowe, jedharris, Cameron_Taylor
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-27T20:50:15.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

they cannot impart any novel knowledge apart from themselves

It's not knowledge, it's skill at self-control and self-awareness. And like most other skills (riding a bicycle, driving a car, etc.) you can't acquire them by reading about them or simply thinking that you already know how to do them.

One of the most pernicious biases of the human brain -- pernicious because it interferes with self-improvement -- is that your brain believes it can always intuitively predict its own responses to mental and physical actions that it has never actually taken.

This means that, even when a self-improvement book includes a technique that produces some useful, novel result, most people will never actually try it, versus just reading about it and imagining that they know what it would have been like if they'd tried it... and concluding that it wouldn't do anything!

And meditation is absolutely in this category. There's a world of difference between intellectually "knowing" how much dreck your brain is putting out, and the practical experience of sitting there and listening to it, day after day, and realizing just how utterly stupid you are... it's also an active discouragement from listening to your own crap the rest of the day, too.

We could also get into health benefits, improved concentration, and all that sort of thing. From personal experience back when I was regularly attending the Dallas Zen center, it also makes you calmer, friendlier, and more confident, although alas those effects are not permanent if you stop. It's sort of more like exercise that way, I think.

Anyway, enlightenment is hardly a requirement for doing meditation, and Zen masters routinely discourage students from paying attention to any exotic or "spiritual" experiences they may have, precisely because the practice is an exercise, not merely a way of getting to some particular destination.

Replies from: Vladimir_Gritsenko, Cameron_Taylor
comment by Vladimir_Gritsenko · 2009-03-28T11:46:31.350Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the most pernicious biases of the human brain... is that your brain believes it can always intuitively predict its own responses to mental and physical actions that it has never actually taken.

Agreed, and relevance noted.

So, you say that meditation has practical benefits - helps problem solving and socializing. Is there research which supports these claims? How does meditation compare to other activities?

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-28T14:12:42.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there research which supports these claims?

Here's some that I know of, from my bookmarks. I imagine a Google search would find you plenty more:

Replies from: Vladimir_Gritsenko
comment by Vladimir_Gritsenko · 2009-03-28T18:15:45.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that's a good starting point. I do feel guilty now for not applying any google-fu, and belatedly offer the Wikipedia article, which mentions other beneficial studies, but also mentions adverse effects and one unfavorable meta-analysis. Whatever the case may be, it opens the way for more constructive analysis, including a cost-benefit one to determine if we, in fact, should meditate, and to what degree. (I'd like to mention here that Erdős took amphetamines. It's a cheat, but then so is meditation. I wonder what other cheats exist? We might be missing on something big here.)

Anyway, it was Yvain who reminded us the power of positivist thinking, and I think that we should proceed along those lines. Even if we agree that Crowley has identified an infrequent experience that is awesome, it does not mean we should automatically care. We need to understand exactly what this awesome is, what it means in general and what applications it has for us. It appears to me that this post and subsequent discussion got it somewhat backwards!

Replies from: ciphergoth
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-28T18:49:39.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder what other cheats exist? We might be missing on something big here.

Modafinil?

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:02:28.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Concentraion

comment by algekalipso · 2012-04-09T22:58:30.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might not provide a lot of knowledge to the subject who practices mysticism. It does provide the best experience in his or her life.

For the time being, this might not provide a lot of value in the grand scheme of things. However, as we advance into posthumanisty, we do want to explore the state-space of possible conscious experiences in a systematic way so we can design ourselves in such a way that we inhabit the best regions of conscious experience. Mysticistical practice, therefore, has a tremendous long term potentintial; having practicioners and scientists interested is crucial if we are indeed to find out more about these states of consciousness.

I think, after all, there is a very pertinent parallel in the community of lesswrong: it is called fun theory. The fact that mystical experiences can be so outsandingly great and sublime beyond words is a very strong indicator that we will never run out of fun.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-28T11:16:58.432Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

deleted

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-03-29T00:06:42.674Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Accepting that I am just guessing and don't have any empirical evidence, I do see a worthwhile overlap between Buddhist techniques and rationalist aspirations.

On Hulver's scoop site I offer a definition of enlightenment.

My apologia for my faith also suggests a large overlap.

For this comment I'll try to give a conrete example. I've noticed that when I ask for advice I have a tendency to accept it if it agrees with what I want to do anyway, and to reject if it warns against what I want ot do. That is pretty useless. Why ask for advice if one is going to reject any that is contrary to ones original plan?

I'm trying to discipline myself to decide in advance whether I really trust the opinion of the person I'm asking, and if I do ask for advice, taking it without demur. This is hard. I think it is hard because my main motivation for asking for advice is so that I can feel good about plans that I have devised that may be foolish. That uncomfortable feeling, that I want to feel better about my planned course of action, is a pretty strong hint that I should abandon the plan if my chosen advisor is reluctant to endorse it.

Well, that is all very good in theory, but how do I follow through? What I hope to gain from meditation techniques such as the Metta-Bhavana is a degree of unconditional happiness. Strangely it is not the happiness that I'm after. What I really what is to sate the gnawing emotional need for happiness that I blame for biasing my judgement.

If I were happy I could straightforwardly ask a friend for advice and take it. I would be free of the nonsense of rejecting advice to meet subconscious emotional needs. How is this working out? I had a handful of successes; it is not a complete failure. Also it fits with having a sense that more is possible and striving for it.

comment by jedharris · 2009-03-28T06:55:41.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regardless of value, the experiences Crowley reports are very far from a free lunch -- they take a lot of time, effort, and careful arrangement.

Don't think of them as knowledge, think of them as skills -- like learning to read or do back of the envelope calculations. They enable certain ways of acquiring or using knowledge. We don't know that the knowledge is at all unique to the mode.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:02:11.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Practice

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-27T01:56:56.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I must admit, I saw the title and was hoping for a commentary on the demon from Good Omens

comment by igoresque · 2009-03-30T00:05:58.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I may make a suggestion (both to the author and to the commenters): why not devote less words to people and more to the issues.

I think it irrelevant whether this Crowley guy was an addict or an evangelical, or whatever. What matters are the issues. I would have liked to read more about what exactly Yvain believes and why, and less about some trip to Asia and parents of a person I never heard off and frankly don't care about.

PS don't hesitate to summarize Godel, Escher Bach. It might be helpful. And why not summarize the bible while you're at it. Who cares. If anyone does mind, they are free to read the original, right? No one loses anything.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-30T00:30:18.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, we lose whenever we think the abbreviated map we have is significantly closer to the territory than it actually is, because then we have less motivation to look at the territory.

One reason that marketers sometimes make a point of listing all the things their product is not, is specifically to overcome people's default setting of "I already know what that is" and "A friend of mine already tried something vaguely resembling that and it didn't work".

So, attempting to summarize difficult-to-accurately-summarize things isn't necessarily doing anyone a service.

comment by Tom_Talbot · 2009-03-27T20:42:07.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems like the right thread to add some info about zen meditation ("zazen") for those who are interested in trying it. These are some pages from an american zen master's website: how to sit zazen and stretches to get to the lotus position.

What I find interesting about zazen is that the emphasis is entirely on posture, with nothing that the practitioner is supposed to think or do, and this is said to have a "balancing" effect on the mind. Having tried it for about a week I can say that it does seem to induce a state of somewhat relaxed alertness, but that the effect varies widely depending on how you were feeling before you did the zazen. Also, it's extremely difficult to maintain motivation to do it every day as recommended, because of the boredom and discomfort of sitting in lotus, staring at the wall.

As to whether this has any applications to rationality, I'm unsure. According to practitioners it may help in avoiding being overcome by emotion, and increasing concentration, but these claims may be a dishonest attempt at proselytisation by buddhists ("join our religion and gain these benefits") and I'm having trouble tracking down any satisfactory references. If anyone else has any experience with this I'd be interested to hear about it.

Replies from: pjeby, MarkusRamikin
comment by pjeby · 2009-03-27T22:05:10.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Zen center I sat at for a while when I lived in Dallas, didn't do any proselytizing that I noticed. As I understand is the general practice, if you tell the Roshi what purpose you're meditating for, he'll assign you an appropriate practice. If you're seeking "bompu Zen" -- i.e., purely material benefits like concentration and willpower enhancement, you'll generally be assigned a practice like counting your breaths. Enlightenment seekers are more likely to be assigned following the breath, a koan, or shikan-taza.

Replies from: Cameron_Taylor
comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-28T04:05:01.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting,

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-09-18T08:55:04.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the emphasis is entirely on posture, with nothing that the practitioner is supposed to think or do

What do you mean? If you're concentrating on, for example, counting the breath, then that is something you're supposed to think/do. From what I understand of zazen - which comes mostly from the Three Pillars of Zen - good posture helps, but it isn't the main point.

As to the benefits to someone interested in thinking clearly, one of the things I find worth mentioning is that it showed me something about the way my mind works. Until I tried zazen I had no real idea of how ridiculously hard it is to actually focus on something I've chosen to focus on. (Crowley writes well about that problem, too, but actually trying it is different than reading about it). Catching the distracting thoughts "in real time", as they arise, was interesting and instructive.

There's a certain persistence I learned from this, the ability to avoid frustration and refocus on a goal time and time again despite distraction or temporary failure. When you are supposed to be following (=paying attention to) your breathing, and you catch yourself thinking about something else, then you're prone to be dismayed or angry or otherwise generate more thoughts and emotions. This makes it even harder to refocus. Eventually though you learn to respond -only- by returning your attention where you meant it to be, without wasting unnecessary thought/energy on the fact of having been distracted. This is a useful skill.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-27T17:05:29.793Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chaos magic is a fascinating subject of study, particularly if you seek out the practitioners who believe (correctly, to my mind) that it has nothing to do with "magic" or changing the world and everything to do with psychological effects and changing your own mind.

Take a look at Wikipedia's entry on the subject to get a general handle on the concept.

comment by Dustin · 2009-03-27T16:04:33.177Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder about myself.

I see no attraction or have any desire to experience any of the things people describe as enlightenment, religious experience, or spirituality.

Is this because of those things association with religion/new-age crazy people/general scam artists, or is it because I'm just different from those who see some attraction to them?

I can't seem to figure it out. On the one hand, I find myself agreeing with many of the things Yvian posts. This makes me think maybe I've been biased by the religion/new-age crazy people/general scam artists association. On the other hand, I really, really try to correct for such a bias...to little effect.

Replies from: HCE
comment by HCE · 2009-03-27T17:52:27.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

what method are you using to ''correct for such a bias''? how do you ''correct'' your associational networks or the preferences that define who you are?

the only method that comes to mind is perspective-shifting or play-acting. trying to imitate the thoughts and (verbal) behaviors of someone who's attracted to spiritual ideas like ''nirvana'' and ''enlightenment'' might give you an appreciation for values that you do not typically use to define yourself.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2009-03-27T23:06:40.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mainly by trying to spend time associating with those who do value such things, and whom I don't associate with the crazy stuff. My network of friends and family include a good number of such folk, whose opinion I don't discount.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-27T12:33:44.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the post. I haven't had time to read it all yet, but I was particularly interested in the following:

"We assert that the critical phenomenon which determines success is an occurrence in the brain characterized essentially by the uniting of subject and object"

This is extremely remniscent of Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality, and seems (superficially) similar to what I understand of Zen. The fact that so many spiritual systems seem to share this fact is intriguing to say the least.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-03-27T07:12:16.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People with artistic aspirations sometimes use practices similar to Crowley's to "break the mold of technique" and actually find something worthwhile to express. For example, a good way to come up with interesting musical lines is a kind of half-dream state, but you need trained attention to avoid drifting or forgetting what you hear.

comment by DeeElf · 2012-09-06T23:56:08.376Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The link "Crowley on Religious Experience" doesn't work. Why?

Replies from: RomanDavis
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-19T14:12:14.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Crowley on Religious Experience.

Link is broken.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-09-19T14:39:52.726Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As has been previously pointed out.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-19T17:16:51.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah thank you don't know how I missed that comment.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2011-09-14T04:47:10.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I independently came to the same conclusion re Crowley a few days ago, for whatever that's worth.)

EK (expected karma): 0.5