According to me, this sequence has been pretty darn abstract.
That was kind of on purpose. It’s the opposite of what I like to do, of what I think I’m good at. I much prefer to engage with an actual specific thing, and to share the details of my experience as I go. This big picture stuff is really not my jam.
But I’ve been trying to paint a really big picture anyway, to describe an entire perspective on investigation, and rationality, and maybe life. I hope it’s been much easier to read than it was for me to write. And I hope that if, at some future point, I dive into the little details of particular exercises and techniques, you’ll be able to contextualize them as more than just trinkets, or rituals that are tedious to little purpose.
But I’m so tired of it. I’m exhausted by all this abstraction. I want to touch the ground. I want to show you what it actually looks like to live a life full of patient and direct observation.
I can tell you that there’s a magnifying glass in my pocket, which I use regularly. I can tell you that I turned the soles of my bare feet toward the sky last week, so that I could feel the snow falling on them. I can tell you that when I put “it seems to me” at the front of so many of my sentences, it’s not false humility, or insecurity, or a verbal tic. (It’s a deliberate reflection on the distance between what exists in reality, and the constellations I’ve sketched on my map.)
I can tell you dozens of facts like these, about my experience of myself and of the world. Hundreds. But none of those means much. Not on its own.
The problem is, this whole thing is founded on patience, which is difficult to demonstrate in an essay. It’s hard to show you all at once the myriad ways a thousand tiny moments add up to one big thing that matters.
Still, they do add up to something.
What they add up to is that I am a naturalist. I was raised to be a naturalist, and it worked. I was raised to be someone who yearns to know the territory through patient and direct observation. My childhood memories are full of mushroom hunting, finding newts under logs, following game trails, reading the geological histories in the rock layers whenever we traveled, and sketching the paths of Jupiter’s moons with a red flashlight beside my telescope.
My upbringing emphasized that the world is an infinity of wonders; unfathomably many in a single handful of dirt. It taught me that knowledge is power. It taught me that although school and books and the edifice of scientific inquiry can help you orient and make sense of your observations, there is exactly one key in the whole universe that can unlock the power of knowledge—and that key is your eagerness to go out into the world, day after day, and look with your own eyes at what is in front of you.
There isn’t space in a concluding essay to properly describe the habits comprising this way of life, or their result. But if I’ve communicated even half of what I hoped to in this sequence, you may now be in a good position to find out for yourself.
Think of some problem you have, something you want to get a better handle on or otherwise figure out. Maybe it’s something to do with your career path, a place where you’re stuck in your research, or the way you spend time with your kids. Anything where you’re yearning for deeper, more masterful knowledge than you have right now.
(There can be a lot of inertia in the flow from paragraph to paragraph. Here is a place to pause. Even if you’re not up for a thought experiment right now, I request that you count to twelve before reading on, just in case something comes to you by accident as soon as I’ve stopped shouting words into your head.)
Now imagine that there’s no internet, and not a single expert available to advise you. Your only books are the ones you write. Your only resources are your body, your mind, and the world itself.
If I wanted to know morel mushrooms, I would look for them beneath an old hardwood tree in a Midwestern forest in spring. I’d go there right about the time the mayapples are in bloom. I would look at the ground, in damp places where the autumn leaves have partially decomposed. That is the natural habitat of morels.
What is the natural habitat of the thing that interests you? Where could you go to observe it directly? How could you invite it to impinge on your experience? And what, if anything, is in the way of you being open to it when it does?
If you’re not sure of its natural habitat, then what’s your best guess, and how could you tell when you’re getting warmer? What might tip you off that some tendril of the thing’s reality has just brushed your mind? How might you recognize if now is the time to pay attention, and to make a new guess about where to look next?
And what could you do to observe it over time, to see beyond your very first impression? What little habits might you adopt, like an athlete who always takes the stairs, to ensure that you make frequent contact with this patch of territory in daily life? How might you record your observations, and notice patterns that aren’t apparent in any single moment?
If you wanted to increase your contact with the world, what is the very first thing you would change?
Duncan Sabien helped me with these essays so much that we went back and forth on where and whether to name him as a coauthor. I wrote the vast majority the text for everything but the first essay, "Orientation", of which I am probably more editor than author. This sequence would not exist in anything like its current form if Duncan hadn't insisted that I try to describe naturalism in a single short sentence. He also handled all of the image editing and formatting for me.
Robin Goins provided alpha feedback that had a huge impact, especially on the later essays. They also influenced some of the material itself over the past year.
My beta readers, who helped me understand what it feels like to go through these essays, made this sequence much more readable. Thank you to Lloyd Strohl III, Eli Tyre, Channa Messinger, and Matthew Lockerman for your feedback.
Although most of the paintings in this sequence are mine, my mother Theresa Strohl painted the one from "Interlude: On Realness" specially for that essay. (It's the one with the spider web.) She also gave me my first lesson in watercolor, and helped me learn to see.
My dad, Lloyd Strohl II, didn't contribute directly to the words of this sequence. Nevertheless, he's still more directly responsible for the perspective it presents than anyone but me.
Many people met with me regularly during May and June of 2021 for my course on nature study, which refined and crystalized much of my understanding of what I was trying to do with naturalism. Several more studied naturalism with me in much smaller groups. I'm grateful for the insight, honesty, and patience of all of them.
Finally, my work is funded by a grant from the Long Term Future Fund, and by my Patreon supporters. Thank you so much for your support.
Something I notice as I read this, that I think has made it a bit harder to grok this sequence:
This post says "I'm a naturalist", and then lists a bunch of examples of things that are, well, natural. Newts and dirt and sunshine and stars and stuff. I do aesthetically like the idea of getting really innately patiently curious about those things. But that's..
a) far removed from my current habits,
b) getting persistently patiently curious about those things just feels like a really inefficient way to make progress on the stuff that I'm actually trying to figure out,
So I feel like I could use more poetry that conveys how this applies to the latter set of things. (I think you have actual background in math so could probably paint poetry yourself about that?). For that matter, just poetry about multiple sets of things you could excitedly patiently observe, that don't have much to do with each other, to help triangulate the-part-that-you're-ultimately-getting-at, rather than one aesthetic that (I think?) is fairly incidental.
I'm also definitely confused about how to apply all of this to research into things that don't exist yet. (I'm not sure if this sequence is supposed to bridge to that yet).
I do get a takeaway of "okay Ray, in addition to trying to Think Hard About AI Alignment Research, you should be doing things that a) give yourself space from that so you brain has room to do various other brain things that feed into that in subtler ways, b) adopt a patient observer mindset that applies to lots things you're interacting with as you contemplate the state of AI Alignment Research."
But I have some sense that, ultimately, the mindset you're aiming to communicate here should apply to imagining things that so far only exist in a map, but might be part of the territory some day.
(By contrast, for the record, I totally believe, and have already worked to shift, myself towards getting curious about my internal thought processes. Reading your old Noticing sequence was pretty valuable for me becoming 'a real rationalist' in some sense, who is able to reflect on their cognitive algorithms and work to improve them)
Here are some words that I've not really vetted yet; they're probably not quite the right words, and I probably don't quite believe whatever's picked out by these particular ones in this order:
There's something special about nature. By "nature" I mean newts and mushrooms and sunlight, and also geometry and probably number theory and abstract algebra. By "nature", I mean things that have not been contaminated by human design. What is the largest pair of twin primes? They may not crawl in the dirt, but their magnitude (or non-existence) depends no more on human thought and perception than does the average number of spots on the back of a red eft. (Maybe. I dunno, my so called math background barely exists, and also I'm not very settled on central questions in the philosophy of math.)
There are things that are almost entirely of human design, such as Facebook and novels and operatic overtures. There are things that are almost entirely devoid of human design, such as newts and meteorites and the Mariana Trench. And there are many, many things somewhere in the middle: things that came from nature but have been shaped to human purposes, such as my stoneware vase; things that interact with extremely non-human systems but whose human interfaces are extensively designed, such as Python and other programming languages that are very far from the metal (exercise: rank programming languages by how immediately tangled with non-human systems they require the programmer to be); and perhaps things that were dreamed up by human imagination but point themselves quite directly at nature (carbon sequestration technologies, maybe? Some approaches to horticulture? I really don't know about this third thing, I'm sleepy and I think I'm just completing the pattern I set up).
It is possible, especially if you live in a city, to spend almost literally all of your time engaged with things that are very far on the "contaminated by human design" side of the gradient. Which is kind of like spending all of your time staring at your own reflection. Without even knowing it, maybe, if you were raised in a city by people who were raised this way. Imagine trying to learn about the world while trapped in a room whose walls and ceiling are made entirely of mirrors.
You're absolutely correct that "knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation" applies to, um, everything? Certainly not just newts and sunlight. The thing about newts and sunlight—the reason I've put the central attitudes and approaches of naturalism-qua-natural-history on a pedestal and taken them as the inspiration for a branch of rationality—is that it's very hard to cheat at newts and sunlight. Compared to interpreting operatic overtures, it's very hard to quickly make up whatever you like about newts and fail to notice that actual newts do not at all resemble your imaginings, at least if you're making a good faith effort to study them. If you study newts, especially if you study a particular newt that nobody's written extensively about, or if you're a for real 18th century natural historian with no wifi at all, you really just have no recourse but patient and direct observation, and the distance between your map and the territory will smack you in the face nearly every time you try to look.
So, I'm definitely not saying "in order to take this general approach I'm talking about, you need to study newts and sunlight, not AI alignment". Indeed, AI alignment research is precisely my target for this work (eventually, probably). I'm saying something more like, "It seems to me that the perspectives and methods that have arisen out of fields and communities that are quite divorced from the natural world may be fatally deficient in this thing that entomologists just fucking nail day in and day out".
And although I want naturalism in Python, and even in the interpretation of operatic overtures, I do think it's a really good idea to look at newts, sunlight, and geometry while building form. I guess this concluding essay was largely about how and why I got the hang of it, and why I've kept the hang of it, and what having the hang of it feels like. Maybe don't start out trying to learn looking-at-things-other-than-mirrors from inside of a mirror room, ya know? Get as far away from mirrors as you can manage, until you start to get the hang of it.
I think naturalism can be directed even at things "contaminated by human design", if you apply the framing correctly. In a way, that's how I started out as something of a naturalist, so it is territory I'd consider a bit familiar.
The best starting point I can offer based on Raemon's comment is to look at changes in a field of study or technology over time, preferably one you already have some interest in (perhaps AI-related?). The naturalist perspective focuses on small observations over time, so I recommend embarking on brief "nature walks" where you find some way to expose yourself to information regarding some innovation in the field, be it ancient or modern. An example of this could be reading up on a new training algorithm you are not already familiar with (since it will be easier to use Original Seeing upon), without expending too much concentration or energy upon trying to calculate major insights.
For example, when asked to think about something I would like more deeper, masterful knowledge about, I replied "artificial neural networks".
The closest thing I could think to potentially experiencing them and interacting is either 1. Through interactive demos or 2. Through a suit like this. I'm unsure if that is what is meant by interaction, though it does seem closer.
I know very little about artificial neural networks, like I'm not really even comfortable saying that I know what they are. (Without googling I'm basically like, "Well, probably they're still systems of logic gates at ground level, though maybe some of them involve quantum computing circuits that are fishy-to-me in their non-binariness or something, and those systems have properties that resemble non-artificial neural networks such as nodes and weighted edges, which causes them to behave like non-artificial neural networks with stuff like association cascades and trigger-action patterns and predictive-processing-type stuff?") [Edit: Oh snap that actually sounds a lot like the Wikipedia page!]
But I can easily imagine someone who's very interested in artificial neural networks and has so far studied them by reading about them and talking to people about them. It's a very different kind of thing to try to design one, at all or even from scratch, to try to use one for various purposes, to provide certain inputs and statistically analyze patterns of outputs, to reason mathematically about what seem to you to be necessary properties of artificial neural networks and then find out whether an actual neural network in front of you behaves as you've predicted.
So yeah if you've mostly been in "reading stuff" territory, that interactive demo looks to me like a great step in the right direction. But if I were in that position, I would be asking myself "what is the very simplest thing that would technically count as an artificial neural network, and what would it take for me to build that thing myself?"
If you're not in the "mostly I've been reading stuff" boat and have already been doing the kinds of things I've described so far, then I expect that increasing the directness of your contact will look less like interacting with a different kind of thing, and more like adopting different mental patterns as you interact. How much of you is showing up to your investigations? What parts of you are asking questions, what parts of you are generating hypotheses? How many methods are you employing for turning your central puzzles around and around to see them from different angles, and what is the range of those methods? What work are you doing to let different activities of your daily life participate in your processes of observation and analysis? What are you doing to become sensitive to subtle patterns in your observations that can only become apparent over time? That kind of thing.
Remember that there are THREE entities needed for contact with the territory: The territory, the person making contact, and sensation at the point of contact. You can change your contact by changing any three of those entities.
In case you haven't seen it, Chris Olah's work in neural network interpretability is extremely concordant with naturalism.
It's common for people to say that neural networks are something like "a mass of inscrutable tensors" and I feel like Olah is one of the only people whose response was something like "did you try literally scrutinizing them" and the answer is no, no one did, because they looked complicated and icky. And then Olah did, and when he looked, he saw things.
Ok I'm actually pretty curious about this myself now. The basic element of an ANN is a neuron I think, and maybe I could personally build a single neuron out of household materials? It doesn't gotta do much, right?
It needs to be able to receive at least one input (though to be at all interesting it probably ought to receive at least 2).
It needs to sum its inputs.
Something about an activation function. Does this happen before or after the summing? My guess is after; so maybe it's stuff like "if the sum is less than 4 then make the output be two less than the sum, but if it's more than 4 make it be the sum times six".
Then it's gotta be able to output, ideally to something observable.
So I'm imagining a little circuit board of logic gates with copper wires attached to batteries and a lightbulb that can glow brighter when you give it more juice, with the activation function business happening in a series of insulators of varying strengths [uh, conductors of varying resistances?] and the variable inputs also coming from currents run through different insulators, or perhaps from different strengths of batteries.
What do you think ML people, am I on the right track? Have I sketched an artificial neuron?
>Logan, how do you make space for practicing naturalism?
I don't have a ready-made answer to this, so I'm going to start rambling whatever maybe-nonsense comes to mind, and see what happens. This will probably not resemble "a good answer" very closely.
I think I mostly "make space for naturalism" by having different intellectual priorities than most adults. When I want to learn something, or to solve a problem, or when I'm in some unfamiliar kind of situation, naturalism-type thoughts are way higher on my priority list than non-naturalism-type thoughts. It's like they get a +5 to their initiative rolls.
I maybe have thoughts milling around like "What would Wikipedia say about this?", "Who could I learn from about this?", and "What is the relevant reference class for this thing?" (I have a feeling these are not actually good examples of the class of thoughts I have in mind, except maybe the reference class one. I'd need to, uh, do some naturalism, to give you a more accurate picture here.) But those thoughts are relatively less shiny to me (at first) than thoughts like, "How could I check it out for myself?", "What would I need to pay attention to if I wanted some data on that?", and "What could I do to make more contact with this thing over the next two weeks?".
I think I __do__ a little bit "make space for naturalism" in a straightforward sense. Common tools along those lines include daily five minute check-ins, a mini notebook in my back pocket for holding information without having to keep track of it in my brain, and dedicated time blocks for designing and trying out exercises/problem-sets/toys.
But those things feel like a mostly organic consequence of prioritizing naturalism-type thoughts, the way I prioritize protein when I'm trying to get physically stronger, or perhaps the way many kids prioritize imagination when given a whole five seconds to do whatever they want. When a thought like "How could I check it out for myself?" feels shiny, I pursue that thought, rather than some other thought I could have spent my time and attention on instead; and pursuing it naturally leads me to thoughts like, "What is the natural habitat of this phenomenon and what would it take for me to go there?" which very often leads me to design an exercise or a TAP or a multifaceted research program.
I've got a lot of back-and-forth going on in my head as I answer this, a lot of conflict. Part of my brain seems to be saying, "No no, this is a wrong question, it's founded on a false premise." But another part of my brain seems to be saying, "You've really hit the nail on the head with 'make space'." And I'm going to have that second part of my brain talk now.
If I had to choose three intellectual macronutrients off the top of my head right now, they'd be scholarship, philosophy, and naturalism. Scholarship and philosophy share a sort of active, assertive property. They're quite go go go, do do do, form goals make plans solve problems execute intentions. You have do spend a lot of time doing things on purpose. Thinking on purpose, driving toward solutions, pouring over sources and analyzing data and drawing out implications. Whatever *space* you have in your life, scholarship and philosophy will *fill up that space* if you let them.
Naturalism is different, on this axis. It is relatively receptive and passive. It requires the same amount of space, but not in the same format, and it doesn't tend to fill up the space with anything. In fact, I think it sort of takes what space is there, and then makes more of it.
When I get a new naturalism student, one of the very first things I ask them to do is nothing. If they go for regular walks, I ask them to turn their phones to airplane mode and to not listen to podcasts or music. If they have a daily subway commute, I ask them to leave their book or laptop in their bag. I help them find places in their daily lives where they habitually fill the space, and would be sacrificing little besides their immediate comfort to leave that space empty. Direct observation only happens in spaces that are not already full.
I don't think I've answered your question yet, but I think I've made some headway and I'm going to pause here for now.
I have lots of points of contact with the world, but it feels really effortful to be always mindful and noting down observations (downright overwhelming if I don't narrowing my focus to a single cluster of datapoints I'm trying to understand)
yeah, a key principle is something like "start light, stay sustainable". or maybe "start with space, make more space".
there's a large range of naturalism infrastructure it's possible to lay. some people want to dive all the way in immediately: evening journal, pocket field notes, a weekly time block for focused investigation, a weekly time block for analysis, a big "catching the spark" exercise to get things started, and a full predict-observe-update loop practice. but most people are better off choosing one single TAP: "I'll snap my fingers when I think I might be confused", "I'll tap my leg when I notice an opportunity to exchange money for time", "I'll tap my toe when I suspect my code will [whatever]."
the reason this particular kind of merely-noticing TAP is the single most important part of the practice, the one to keep when anything else might be too much, is that it makes space. it creates these tiny little bubbles where additional attention is likely to be worthwhile, and the bubbles have a way of expanding over time.
before you start doing a thing like this, it might seem like there are so many times when you're confused, and they go by so fast, and there's just no way you can pay enough attention all the time to extract useful data from those itty bitty moments. but if all you have to do is tap your leg, nevermind extract data or do anything else at all with your mind, that's more manageable--and you'll likely find that the longer you do it, the easier and less overwhelming it gets. you find yourself realizing after you've tapped your leg that confusion just happened, because the practice has become automatic. you're not paying a bunch of attention all the time; you've learned to concentrate your attention into those tiny moments when it matters. and once you've concentrated your attention like that, the moments themselves seem to expand. they don't seem to go by so quick. it's like you've put them under a microscope, and over time you've zooming in and in with more and more powerful lenses. it's not overwhelming at all. it's sort of the opposite. by a gradual, sustainable process, you become an expert at observing the thing you're interested in, and it's easy.
then once it's easy, and you are not at all overwhelmed by the practice, then you might want to consider something like capturing some of your observations in a pocket notebook, or keeping a list of times when you tapped your leg, or adding another thing to try noticing. start from spaciousness, and create more space.
Thanks for writing all this, found it very interesting and (expectantly) useful!
One thing that interests me is how to apply it to more abstract concepts; I'm not particularly interested in things found in the state of nature, like bugs and trees and such, but I am fascinated by people, emotions, thoughts, etc. So I find myself thinking things like "What can I do to increase my contact with 'Jealousy' or 'nationalism' etc" and coming up with ways to either find circumstances where people feel those things and observe them, or find ways to induce those feelings in myself for more careful study... but neither feels quite satisfying to what I actually want to better understand.
Curious to know if you have any thoughts on this, or ideas for what might help better orient my frame of how to explore those things more directly in this way.
Can you say more about what you want to better understand that you don't expect to encounter in your own experience of jealousy?
No wait scratch that. Please don't start by crystalizing your preconceptions for the sake of communicating with me. New question: Where might you encounter something crucial to the thing you're interested in, if you could somehow transport a bit of your sensorium there?
But if you spend five minutes on that and are still stuck, go back to the first question.