Posts

Sasha Chapin on bad social norms in rationality/EA 2021-11-17T09:43:35.177Z
How feeling more secure feels different than I expected 2021-09-17T09:20:05.294Z
What does knowing the heritability of a trait tell me in practice? 2021-07-26T16:29:52.552Z
Experimentation with AI-generated images (VQGAN+CLIP) | Solarpunk airships fleeing a dragon 2021-07-15T11:00:05.099Z
Imaginary reenactment to heal trauma – how and when does it work? 2021-07-13T22:10:03.721Z
[link] If something seems unusually hard for you, see if you're missing a minor insight 2021-05-05T10:23:26.046Z
Beliefs as emotional strategies 2021-04-09T14:28:16.590Z
Open loops in fiction 2021-03-14T08:50:03.948Z
The three existing ways of explaining the three characteristics of existence 2021-03-07T18:20:24.298Z
Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks 2021-03-05T09:01:53.996Z
Different kinds of language proficiency 2021-02-26T18:20:04.342Z
[Fiction] Lena (MMAcevedo) 2021-02-23T19:46:34.637Z
What's your best alternate history utopia? 2021-02-22T08:17:23.774Z
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Ethics of Artificial Intelligence 2021-02-20T13:54:05.162Z
Bedtime reminiscences 2021-02-19T11:50:05.271Z
Unwitting cult leaders 2021-02-11T11:10:04.504Z
[link] The AI Girlfriend Seducing China’s Lonely Men 2020-12-14T20:18:15.115Z
Are index funds still a good investment? 2020-12-02T21:31:40.413Z
Snyder-Beattie, Sandberg, Drexler & Bonsall (2020): The Timing of Evolutionary Transitions Suggests Intelligent Life Is Rare 2020-11-24T10:36:40.843Z
Retrospective: November 10-day virtual meditation retreat 2020-11-23T15:00:07.011Z
Memory reconsolidation for self-affection 2020-10-27T10:10:04.884Z
Group debugging guidelines & thoughts 2020-10-19T11:02:32.883Z
Things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time 2020-10-17T08:00:06.742Z
The Felt Sense: What, Why and How 2020-10-05T15:57:50.545Z
Public transmit metta 2020-10-04T11:40:03.879Z
Attention to snakes not fear of snakes: evolution encoding environmental knowledge in peripheral systems 2020-10-02T11:50:05.327Z
AI Advantages [Gems from the Wiki] 2020-09-22T22:44:36.671Z
The Haters Gonna Hate Fallacy 2020-09-22T12:20:06.050Z
(Humor) AI Alignment Critical Failure Table 2020-08-31T19:51:18.266Z
nostalgebraist: Recursive Goodhart's Law 2020-08-26T11:07:46.690Z
Collection of GPT-3 results 2020-07-18T20:04:50.027Z
Are there good ways to find expert reviews of popular science books? 2020-06-09T14:54:23.102Z
Three characteristics: impermanence 2020-06-05T07:48:02.098Z
On the construction of the self 2020-05-29T13:04:30.071Z
From self to craving (three characteristics series) 2020-05-22T12:16:42.697Z
Craving, suffering, and predictive processing (three characteristics series) 2020-05-15T13:21:50.666Z
A non-mystical explanation of "no-self" (three characteristics series) 2020-05-08T10:37:06.591Z
A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence: introduction and preamble 2020-05-05T19:09:44.484Z
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on AI ethics and superintelligence 2020-05-02T07:35:36.997Z
Healing vs. exercise analogies for emotional work 2020-01-27T19:10:01.477Z
The two-layer model of human values, and problems with synthesizing preferences 2020-01-24T15:17:33.638Z
Under what circumstances is "don't look at existing research" good advice? 2019-12-13T13:59:52.889Z
A mechanistic model of meditation 2019-11-06T21:37:03.819Z
On Internal Family Systems and multi-agent minds: a reply to PJ Eby 2019-10-29T14:56:19.590Z
Book summary: Unlocking the Emotional Brain 2019-10-08T19:11:23.578Z
System 2 as working-memory augmented System 1 reasoning 2019-09-25T08:39:08.011Z
Subagents, trauma and rationality 2019-08-14T13:14:46.838Z
Subagents, neural Turing machines, thought selection, and blindspots 2019-08-06T21:15:24.400Z
On pointless waiting 2019-06-10T08:58:56.018Z
Integrating disagreeing subagents 2019-05-14T14:06:55.632Z

Comments

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Consume fiction wisely · 2022-01-22T13:03:48.775Z · LW · GW

Listening to an excellent non-fiction audiobook will give you both the escape and a better relaxation (including a good rest for your back and eyes). 

It's not my experience that non-fiction would generally give me better relaxation than fiction. (Nor that audiobooks would generally be more relaxing than the written word.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Nudging My Way Out Of The Intellectual Mosh Pit · 2022-01-16T19:16:21.007Z · LW · GW

where Feedly requires you to not only go to its own page to add feeds, but track down the actual feed URL rather than figuring it out from the blog’s homepage URL

I'm confused now, because I've definitely just given Feedly a blog's URL and had it figure out the feed from that. Just tested it by giving it an URL now, and it returned three different feeds, two of them being for the blog itself and one being the comments for the blog.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Personal blogging as self-imposed oppression · 2022-01-15T18:20:32.702Z · LW · GW

Learning you were wrong about something:

No blog --> Update your beliefs.
Yes blog --> Update your beliefs, and all relevant blog posts

You can also just update your beliefs and leave the relevant blog posts unchanged. :) If I read someone's old blog post, I don't assume them to necessarily still believe the same things today, so I also don't feel like my old posts would necessarily need to be changed when my beliefs change. They're like historical records whose value is in recording what I used to believe at the time.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on A non-mystical explanation of "no-self" (three characteristics series) · 2022-01-14T10:34:52.861Z · LW · GW

Thanks, this is fair.

I find myself sort of frustrated that there isn't a clear sentence that I can point to, which identifies what no-self is, like "no-self is the observation that the 'self' can be reduced to constituent parts instead of being ontologically basic."

When I read this, my thought was "huh, wasn't there one?" and then I looked at my post and realized that well, kind of - the sentence I was thinking of was the one in bold:

Likewise, Daniel Ingram, meditation teacher and author of the widely-read book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, writes that (emphasis mine):

The original Pali term, anatta, means literally “not-self”. This same term is also rendered by other authors in other ways, some of which can be extremely problematic, such as egolessness, a terribly problematic term, since ego as understood in the Western psychological sense is not the referent of the conception of “self” targeted in Buddhism. Another problematic rendering of this term is “emptiness”. Emptiness, for all its mysterious-sounding connotations, means that reality is empty of, devoid of, or lacking a permanent, separate, independent, acausal, autonomous self. It doesn’t mean that reality is not there, but that reality is not there in the way it may appear to us to be.

If I had to give a one-sentence definition of what exactly no-self is, I might point to Ingram's definition there (which I think incidentally corresponds to saying that the self is a network 1 rather than network 2 kind of thing). But yeah, my post never actually quite said "this is also my definition of no-self, if I had to give one", it just said "here's how Ingram talks about no-self".

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why maximize human life? · 2022-01-07T18:59:36.359Z · LW · GW

simply wanting to create lives without considering living conditions does not seem to take this into account 

I don't think any of the people who support creating more lives believe we should do so regardless of living conditions, though they may assume that most human lives are worth living and that it takes exceptionally bad conditions for someone's life to become not worth living.

Typically people may also assume that technological and societal progress continues, thus making it even more likely than today that the average person has a life worth living. E.g. Nick Bostrom's paper Astronomical Waste notes, when talking about a speculative future human civilization capable of settling other galaxies:

I am assuming here that the human lives that could have been created would have been worthwhile ones. Since it is commonly supposed that even current human lives are typically worthwhile, this is a weak assumption. Any civilization advanced enough to colonize the local supercluster would likely also have the ability to establish at least the minimally favorable conditions required for future lives to be worth living.

In general, you easily end up with "maximizing human lives is good (up to a point)" as a conclusion if you accept some simple premises like:

  1. It's good to have humans who have lives worth living
  2. Most new humans will have lives that are worth living
  3. It's better to have more of a good thing than less of it

Thus, if it's good to have lives worth living (1) and most new humans will have lives that are worth living (2), then creating new lives will be mostly good. If it's better to have more of a good thing than less of it (3), and creating new lives will be mostly good, then it's better to create new lives than not to.

Now it's true that at some point we'll probably run into resource or other constraints so that the median new life won't be worth living anymore. But I think anyone talking about maximizing life is just assuming it as obvious that the maximization goal will only hold up to a certain point.

(Of course it's possible to dispute some of these premises - see e.g. here or here for arguments against. But it's also possible to accept them.)

  • it is possible that maximizing animal life, or perhaps alien or artificial life, would create more utility, as these lives might be optimized with way less effort

Some of the people wanting to create more human lives might indeed agree with this! For instance, when they say "human", they might actually have in mind some technologically enhanced posthuman species that's a successor for our current species.

On the other hand, it's also possible that people who say this just intrinsically value humans in particular.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Animal welfare EA and personal dietary options · 2022-01-06T18:12:13.707Z · LW · GW

I would guess that humans' nightmarish experience in concentration camps was usually better than nonexistence; and even if you suspect this is false, it seems easy to imagine how it could be true, because there's a lot more to human experience than 'pain, and beyond that pain, darkness'. It feels like a very open question in the human case.

When you say that it could be true, do you mean that it could be true that the person themselves would judge their experience as better than nonexistence?

(Your paragraph reads to me as implying that there could be some more objective answer to this separate from a person's own judgment of it, but it's hard for me to imagine what that would even mean.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Animal welfare EA and personal dietary options · 2022-01-06T11:46:03.125Z · LW · GW

This seems like a super hard question, and not one that changes the importance of working to promote animal welfare, so naively (absent some argument for a more informative prior) it should have a 50/50 split within animal welfare circles.

My intuition is that many people are drawn into animal welfare specifically because they think that factory farming is clearly net-negative, thus making this an important cause area, while people who think that factory farming is positive are likely to see other EA cause areas as more urgent and gravitate towards them.

Within the "net-negative" camp, in my unanchored "what would I naively expect?" hypothetical, I then imagine dietary preferences breaking down something like:

  • 10%: Approximate veg*nism or approximate reducetarianism. ("Approximate" to allow for carve-outs like bivalves and especially-moral animal products. The group generally strongly encourages all members to have at least one carve-out, because bivalves in particular are such a clear case and dietary purity ethics is a risky attractor to avoid.) 
  • 10%: Handshake-itarianism. [...]

Within the "net-positive" camp, I imagine:

  • 10%: Sentience-maximizing diets. If you think animals in factory farms have net-positive lives, then it makes sense to want to increase the number of animals (by eating the most meat-heavy healthy diet possible) while also working to improve their welfare. 
  • 10%: Handshake-itarianism. [...]

Handshake-itarianism observes that the ~veg*ns and the sentience-maximizers are sort of offsetting each other's efforts, and that it can make more sense for Bob the ~Veg*n and Alice the Sentience-Maximizer to pair off and each agree to eat a "compromise" diet (e.g., both eat meat but only on the weekend). 

Sentience-maximizing diets would make logical sense, but I don't think I recall ever meeting anyone (EA or otherwise) who would follow such a diet, while I have met plenty of people (EA or otherwise) who follow approximate veg*nism or approximate reductarianism. For that reason I'd also be surprised if both camps really had the same numbers of Handshake-itarians, simply because there seem to me to be vastly fewer sentience-maximizers to trade with than there are ~veg*ns.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Regularization Causes Modularity Causes Generalization · 2022-01-02T07:23:04.303Z · LW · GW

Great post!

If you expect no failures at all, you should let modules be as specialized as possible in order to maximize performance.

  • Do that, and your modules end up hyperspecialized and interdependent. The borders between different modules wither away; you no longer have functionally distinct modules to speak of. You have a spaghetti tower.

I'm a little confused by this bit, because intuitively it feels like hyperspecialization = hypermodularity? In that if a module is a computational unit that carries out a specific task, then increased specialization feels like it should lead to there being lots and lots of modules, each focused on some very narrow task?

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Merry Christmas · 2021-12-29T14:25:00.166Z · LW · GW

That's a high compliment! If I had a role in bringing you here, then that makes me happy. :)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why did Europe conquer the world? · 2021-12-29T14:23:27.954Z · LW · GW

Yeah, to be clear my comment was meant as an "here are some added details" rather than a strict counterargument.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why did Europe conquer the world? · 2021-12-29T14:22:19.330Z · LW · GW

Do you disagree with my core takeaway from Jared Diamond that Eurasian (including north African) dominance over America and Australia (and, to a lesser extent, Subsaharan Africa) was overdetermined by the 15th century due to Old World network effects related to technology, disease and industrial capacity stemming from large interconnected population centers?

I don't feel competent enough to have an opinion about it, but Deveraux said a similar thing in the post I linked in the other comment, so it seems plausible in general.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why did Europe conquer the world? · 2021-12-28T14:00:27.327Z · LW · GW

I think the quotes you link mostly attack Jared Diamond's case, not mine.

Yeah, I included them because the line of yours that I quoted made it sound like you endorse his case overall (separate from your own argument).

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why did Europe conquer the world? · 2021-12-28T13:22:01.440Z · LW · GW

The technical reason Britain won was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. Guns and ships require lots of iron. The Industrial Revolution gave Britain the best guns and the best ships.

See also the post "Why Europe" where historian Bret Deveraux possible factors other than just the industrial revolution that affected Europe having better guns than Asia, e.g.:

Chase notes, very persuasively, that firearms just weren’t a very good answer if your major threat was steppe nomad horsemen. Sure, firearms c. 1800 would do the job, but no one directing resources in 1550 could know that. So societies where the major threat was other agrarian states with big infantry armies invest heavily in firearms while states whose major threats are nomads do so to a lesser degree. Since – in a way no one could realize in 1550 – firearms had the potential for much greater power in the long run, Western Europe (one of the few areas of the belt of complex agrarian societies running over Eurasia that did not have major steppe nomad threats due to Eastern Europe being in the way) found itself, by mostly dumb geographic luck with the ‘killer app’ of the 1600s and following. In short then, Chase argues that Europe’s military advantage (and thus its dominant position) was a consequence of environment – being relatively shielded from regions of Steppe which would give rise to dangerous nomads – which in turn motivated European to embrace the new technology (guns) with greater long-term growth potential. The weakness of the thesis is that other places similarly insulated (namely Japan) didn’t have an indigenous military revolution (though they adopted it enthusiastically when it showed up), while Mamluk Egypt, which in this formulation ought to have been as eager on firearms as the Ottomans very clearly wasn’t for what seem pretty clearly to be cultural reasons (Chase anticipates and attempts to fend off this argument, but it is one of his weaker arguments in an overall excellent book).

His overall view:

my own view of the evidence is something of a hybrid of most of these models explaining the rise of Europe. The rapid European development of firearms-based warfare created a feedback loop in terms of state centralization (cannon and muskets broke the power of the rural nobility, enabling centralization, which enabled more cannon and muskets, repeat until state-building complete then let dry; see Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 7&9), while the fragmented agrarian state-on-state warfare in Europe encouraged firearm development particularly leading to an uncommonly effective military package (though not an unbeatable one in the 1600s and early 1700s) corresponding fairly substantially to the elements of Parker’s military revolution. That package enabled European states to set up and hold on to port-and-fort toeholds on other continents they might otherwise have lost (though early on, often only at the sufferance of local rulers, a balance of power that shifts almost imperceptibly until it shifts all at once). The networks of global trade and exploitation that created – because empire must be a product of military strength first – in turn fed a second feedback loop, providing the resources for greater intensification of both state power and economic development which then fed into the industrial revolution. The products of that second cycle, emerging in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, at last proved sufficient to overwhelm the large, complex agrarian states of Eurasia which had, up until that point, generally been able to maintain rough parity with Europe.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Why did Europe conquer the world? · 2021-12-28T12:56:32.636Z · LW · GW

Jared Diamond makes a persuasive case for

Note that GGS is considered very poorly by historians as far as I understand, see e.g. this AskHistorians comment:

The quick and dirty answer is that modern historians and anthropologists are quite critical of, if not borderline/outright hostile to, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Put bluntly, historians and anthropologists believe Diamond plays fast and loose with history by generalizing highly complex topics to provide an ecological/geographical determinist view of human history that, in the end, paradoxically supports the very racism/Eurocentricism he is attempting to argue against. There is a reason historians avoid grand theories of human history: those "just so stories" don't adequately explain human history.

Given our natural tendency to avoid speaking with authority on topics outside our expertise, academic analysis of GG&S is somewhat wanting. To work around this issue, /u/snickeringshadow and I constructed several point by point refutations in another history-related community. I will quote a bit from both analyses because they illustrate many of the critical issues permeating GG&S, though I'll just discuss three of the issues.

First, Diamond notoriously cherry-picks data that supports his hypothesis while ignoring the complexity of the issues.

In his chapter "Lethal Gift of Livestock" on the origin of human crowd infections he picks 5 pathogens that best support his idea of domestic origins. However, when I dived into the genetic and historic data, only two pathogens (maybe influenza and most likely measles) on his hand-picked All Star team could possibly have jumped to humans through domestication. The majority were already a part of the human disease load before the origin of agriculture, domestication, and sedentary population centers. Diamond ignored the evidence that didn't support his theory to explain conquest via disease spread to immunologically naive Native Americas.

Also, he cherry-picks history when discussing the conquest of the Inka...

Pizarro's military advantages lay in the Spaniards' steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns, and horses... Such imbalances of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Europeans with Native Americans and other peoples. The sole Native Americans able to resist European conquest for many centuries were those tribes that reduced the military disparity by acquiring and mastering both guns and horses.

This is just patently false. Conquest was not a simple matter of conquering a people, raising a Spanish flag, and calling "game over." Conquest was a constant process of negotiation, accommodation, and rebellion played out through the ebbs and flows of power over the course of centuries. Some Yucatan Maya city-states maintained independence for two hundred years after contact, were "conquered", and then immediately rebelled again. The Pueblos along the Rio Grande revolted in 1680, dislodged the Spanish for a decade, and instigated unrest that threatened the survival of the entire northern edge of the empire for decades to come. Technological "advantage", in this case guns and steel, did not automatically equate to battlefield success in the face of resistance, rough terrain and vastly superior numbers. The story was far more nuanced, and conquest was never a cut and dry issue, but Diamond doesn't mention that complexity. The Inka were conquered when Pizarro says they were conquered, and technology reigns supreme in Diamond's narrative.

This brings us to a second issue: Diamond uncritically examines the historical record surrounding conquest.

Pizarro, Cortez and other conquistadores were biased authors who wrote for the sole purpose of supporting/justifying their claim on the territory, riches and peoples they subdued. To do so they elaborated their own sufferings, bravery, and outstanding deeds, while minimizing the work of native allies, pure dumb luck, and good timing. If you only read their accounts, like Diamond seems to do, you walk away thinking a handful of adventurers conquered an empire thanks to guns and steel and a smattering of germs. No historian in the last half century would be so naive to argue this generalized view of conquest, but European technological supremacy is one keystone to Diamond's thesis so he presents conquest at the hands of a handful of adventurers.

Finally, though I do not believe this was his intent, the construction of the arguments for GG&S paints Native Americans specifically, and the colonized world-wide in general, as categorically inferior.

To believe the narrative you need to view Native Americans as fundamentally naive, unable to understand Spanish motivations and desires, unable react to new weapons/military tactics, unwilling to accommodate to a changing political landscape, incapable of mounting resistance once conquered, too stupid to invent the key technological advances used against them, and doomed to die because they failed to build cities, domesticate animals and thereby acquire infectious organisms. When viewed through this lens, I hope you can see why so many historians and anthropologists are livid that a popular writer is perpetuating a false interpretation of history while minimizing the agency of entire continents full of people.

Instead of GG&S try...

Restall Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Mann 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

MacQuarrie Last Days of the Inca

And if you would like to hear more about infectious disease spread after contact... Kelton Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715

or this one: 

Yours is a common conundrum. Look through any /r/history thread mentioning Diamond and you will see dozens of people who find our critiques pedantic, and that, in a general sense, Diamond’s thesis makes sense. This is a very difficult attitude to address, because it’s rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how social sciences work. The attitude evaluates the ideas of popular authors from a utilitarian, practical approach: if the thesis is useful and helps makes sense of the world, it has value. We researchers take an inductive approach: if your methodology and facts are wrong, your thesis can't be right, no matter how much it "makes sense."

For this reason, I’m kind of sick of talking about Diamond’s theoretical bents and ideologies. The standards by which scholars and the public evaluate them are so different that we have to address an entire epistemological orientation.

But before we get anywhere, let’s start at the very beginning: the central thesis of GG&S:

  1. Europeans decisively conquered the Americas
  2. with a potent combination of guns, germs, and steel
  3. which they had, and the Americans did not, because of several ecological factors.
  4. This is why white people have all the “cargo.”

Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians critique this thesis because numbers 1, 2, and 4 are simply incorrect.

  1. The European conquest was hardly decisive. Furthermore, the difference between hemispheres wasn’t all that great.
  2. The greatest weapon Europeans had was neither guns nor steel, but native alliances, which you seem to have read about. Similarly, the titular germs were not inherently devastating. Epidemics started after European intervention in the form of slave trades, forced resettlement, or the like. Diamond's depiction of European arrival is mostly incorrect.
  3. White people having the “cargo” is a result of colonial practices of the newly globalized world. Colonialists typically worked with local elites to exploit already disadvantaged populations

That leaves us with number 3, which is what I presume you are asking about. How do local mammals, available crops, etc. play into the development of civilizations? The shorthand for this mechanism of historical processes is environmental or geographical determinism. As I’m sure you’ve seen on the sub (if not, do a quick search for “determinism”), there’s dozens of questions that pop up regularly:

  • How much does Diamond rely on it? How central is it to his thesis?
  • Where do we draw the line between “were able to” and “did?” If Diamond proves the ability to conquer, how does that relate in any way to the actual conquest event?
  • What then is the reason the Spanish had ships and the Aztecs didn’t? And so on.

Again, I’m kind of sick of this. I and many other flairs have discussed these questions in good faith with people whose ideas are not going to change, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve dug myself into some holes. You’re right. There’s not many books or articles out there that offer a sound, thorough rebuttal of Diamond’s brand of environmental determinism.

And I, for one, couldn’t care less. Why?

I have better things to do than critique explanations for events that never happened.

Let’s suppose I’m reading a lab report from a student. Tommy writes that when he mixed two clear liquids together, a purple solid formed at the bottom of the beaker. Tommy determines that this solid is a chemical called Purple. The report has some figuring to show that the only two clear liquids that combine to form Purple are Chemical A and Chemical B. “Great job!” I write on Tommy’s paper.. and then I turn to the photographs he has attached of the lab. Silly Tommy! The solid in the photos is obviously green, and there are bright yellow bubbles.

I’m now stuck with a dilemma. What do I make of the reaction Tommy’s come up with? Is he a good scientist? There’s sound internal logic in the reaction he has plotted. Chemicals A and B do make Purple when mixed. But at the same time, thinking the solid was purple and missing the bubbles is so outrageously ignorant and unobservant that Tommy obviously has some work to do. Did he even do the experiment?

This is where we stand with Diamond. Just as Chemicals A and B do in fact make Purple, environmental determinism is not inherently a flawed historical mechanism. Abundant, stable, and nutritious fish populations on the Peruvian coast encouraged early sedentism in South America. Close access to obsidian, iron, gold, or other commodities gave many polities trade privileges. Wheels are dumb in mountains. The divergent developments of cultures across seven continents can of course, in some ways, be attributed to their environments- wild seed sizes, protein content centrality, and all.

At the same time, Diamond pins the present state of the world, the difference in “cargo,” on events that never happened. Just as Tommy’s report extrapolated causes from a flawed version of an event, Diamond extrapolates causes for a conquest that didn’t happen. (Let’s not get into the teleological flaws of such histories.) In a world where conquistadors bested Aztecs with with guns and Spanish friars set up missions in communities devastated by plague, Diamond’s arguments would matter. But this is a world where Tlaxcalans bested Aztecs, and Spanish friars set up many failed missions before gaining a foothold and witnessing entirely disrupted populations fall to disease afterwards.

Thus, even if we validate with absolute certainty that the Eurasian continent gave its residents greater contact with domesticated animals, and that larger wild seed sizes were able to support larger urban populations, and that these in tandem gave Europeans a increased resistance to disease it wouldn't matter. History as Diamond describes it still would not have happened. It never did. The given effects did not happen, so we must question the validity of the causes.

If you're arguing that Ross Perot became president in 1992 instead of Bill Clinton, it doesn't matter if you think that Clinton's campaign was sabotaged by the Chinese or that Perot personally changed all ballots to votes for him: he didn't win, so why debate what made him win? In the same way, I'm not going to waste my time critiquing Diamond's brand of environmental determinism because it explains events that never happened.

To provide some resources about your other questions:

  • The simplest and most common critique of Diamond is that he’s reliant on environmental determinism exclusively. There are 5000 ways to study history, and choosing just one is never good.
  • Beyond Germs which you can pick up for a decent price, dismantles the idea that pre-existing factors caused native depopulation by disease. Diseases killed, yes, but primarily as a result of European practices post-contact. Mass resettlement into compact and unsanitary reduccion towns, disruption and destruction of traditional foodways, abusive forced labor in mines and hacienda plantations, and other factors all enabled diseases to assault an already weakened populace. Resistance had little to do with.
  • On a similar note, the most deadly diseases did not originate from domesticated mammals.
  • The “unequal development” of Eurasia and the Americas was not that unequal. There’s also no reason to assume they should have followed similar, and most “advanced” things are really just “more European.”
  • I would take a look at “World Systems” theory as an idea behind the development of the modern balances of power and wealth.

or this one:

I thought I’d throw in my 2c’s and tell you exactly why I, personally, have issues with Diamond. I’m mainly going to focus on the Conquest of the Americas, because it is my area, and this was also the ‘turning point,’ as identified by Diamond himself.

The big challenge with debating Guns, Germs, and Steel, is that Diamond is not exactly wrong. The points he raises are valid. Disease and technology did play a role in the European domination of the world. The problem is that Diamond makes several basic, let’s call them assumptions, regarding some parts of his argument, especially revolving around agriculture and writing. In addition, there are several points that Diamond completely ignores or dismisses, such as Native disunity and human agency.

Let’s begin with the big set piece, Cajamarca. Diamond uses this set piece as a vehicle to demonstrate his arguments. To him, the Incas are defeated by a combination of technology and literacy. However, his portrayal of the incident is incomplete, and myopic. My first question is, why this incident? Why Cajamarca, and not Otumba, a battle against the Aztecs? This might seem like a bit of a nit-picky question, but the Aztecs were the first major Native American Empire to fall to the Spanish. This war basically created stereotypical views on the clash of culture. However, dealing with the Aztecs would bring up two points that contradict his argument. First, there is the belief that Motecuhzoma mistook Cortes for a returning god. Now, historians have largely dismissed the idea that the Aztecs thought the Spanish gods. However, dealing with the issue brings up the question of human agency. Second, the Conquest of Mexico took place in the midst of an Indigenous civil war, with the Tlaxcalans playing a prominent role in the conflict. Both of these challenge Diamond’s thesis of Environmental Determinism. It doesn’t help that the Aztecs inflicted some serious defeats on the Spanish, most notably La Noche Triste, questioning his technological argument. So he shifts his attention to Cajamarca, where these issues are less noticeable.

As for Cajamarca itself, Diamond makes two big mistakes. First, he presents it as a battle, when it really was not. Atahualpa’s retinue was unarmed and unarmoured. It was less a battle and more of a massacre. At that point the technological difference hardly matters. Second, he makes assumptions about Atahualpa’s intentions, blaming his decision to meet Pizzaro on a lack of a literate culture. Atahualpa could not see the obvious trap because he was not well read enough to know about deception. This view is problematic for several reasons, but the most important here is that it makes assumptions about Atahualpa’s intentions. The truth is, we don’t really know what Atahualpa was thinking. However, I have read some (secondary) sources that imply that Pizzaro and the Inca were discussing rebellions in Peru, and Atahualpa may have thought that Pizzaro was a mercenary offering to fight for him. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the Incas, so I’ll leave the guesswork there. Suffice to say, Diamond’s assertion that Atahualpa was ignorant is highly dubious, to say the least.

There are lot of other little things wrong with Cajamarca. For example, Diamond states that Conquistadors wore steel armour (most did not), that Native armour couldn’t protect indigenous warriors (it could), and the idea that technological adaption was restricted to a few indigenous groups, (it was actually pretty common). Basically, Diamond’s demonstrative example is a pretty poor choice. But let’s change tracks here and look at his points more generally.

Guns and Steel:

The easiest part of Diamond’s argument to understand are his technological points. After all, the power of a sword of gun can be demonstrated, tested, measured. However, the issue is much more complicated than it seems. While there is no doubt that Spanish steel swords were effective weapons, the Conquistadors were definitely better off with them, there is the question over exactly how effective they were in practice. The Aztecs for example, had the macahuitl, their obsidian swords. Although not as effective as a steel sword, they were still dangerous weapons that were capable of killing a horse in a single blow. They also came in two-handed varieties, which were longer than Spanish swords. Thus, the Aztecs fought the Spanish on relatively even terms, and it is not clear that the steel (though stronger than obsidian), would have been enough to make up the difference.

A lot of other Spanish weapons were much less clearly advantageous, often having serious limitations. Gunpowder weapons were slow, inaccurate, clumsy, and frequently lacked powder. They were useless in the wet, and noisy. Crossbows were more effective, but suffered from slow fire rates. Native bows were not quite as damaging, but nevertheless, they were still powerful. Furthermore, they could be fired several times for each crossbow bolt. Horse too, often regarded as the Spanish ‘ace up the sleeve,’ were much less effective than reported. Central Mexican warriors often stood their ground against cavalry, even to the point of grapping the riders’ lances. In any case, the Spanish only had a limited supply of these weapons, so it is hard to know if they really had an appreciable effect.

Conversely, Native societies proved far more adaptable than Diamond realizes, both technologically and tactically. Although Diamond is well aware of technological adaptation (he has a whole chapter on it), he tends to downplay it with the Spanish Conquest. Yet, many native peoples, especially Mesoamericans, responded to Spanish technological challenges with technological and tactical innovations of their own. The Aztecs used captured Spanish swords to make pikes to counter enemy cavalry. They also armoured their canoes to protect them against bolts and gunshot. They even attempted to use Spanish crossbows against them. Tactically, they switched to raids, urban warfare, night attacks, and ambushes. Nor were the Aztecs unique. The Mapuche in Chile rapidly adopted Spanish arms, eventually fielding pike and cavalry squadrons in battle. In general, it took less than two decades for Native Americans to be as heavily armed as their European opponents. Obviously, technology was an advantage for the Spanish. But it became less of an advantage every moment of those critical years. Eventually, European technology pulled ahead, but the Conquest of the Americas was already over at that point. Of all the factors, it was probably the least decisive.

Germs:

Germs seems like a slam dunk for Diamond’s arguments, and to be clear, I don’t doubt that Diamond is right here. Diseases did play a major role in the Spanish Conquest. My objection is that Diamond portrays a very simplified narrative. By which I mean he notices the disease, but does not seem to fully realise its consequences. Let’s look at the Inca civil war. Now Diamond certainly acknowledges that the Incas were in the midst of internal strife. Yet he doesn’t use this knowledge to better understand the events of Cajamarca. He seems to regard the Inca civil war as a simple and completed affair, a side show to the Spanish Conquest. Yet, the Inca nobility was still fighting each other when Atahualpa was imprisoned. Atahualpa even had his rival, Huscar, killed despite being a hostage at the time. Atahualpa’s successor himself was assassinated. This may explain why Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizzaro. It may explain why the Inca army did not immediately attack. They didn’t know who was in charge.

A similar pattern occurred in other conflicts, such as the Conquest of the Aztec Empire. The smallpox plague did not just kill Aztecs, it broke apart their political system. The same pattern repeated across the Americas. Native states could never form a coherent defence against Europeans because disease kept undermining their political structures.

But wait, there’s more. The way historians, Diamond, and people more generally, have regarded disease is also kind of problematic. The great plagues are usually viewed as somehow separate, from the rest of the colonization process, even though Europeans are acknowledged to be the ultimate source. However, even as disease facilitated the conquest, the conquest facilitated the germs. Generally, disease was devastating in the short term, but populations, if left alone, could recover in time. Spanish policies, including slave raiding, mission systems, coercive labour, and congregation, prevented this. Famine that resulted exacerbated the plagues, as starving people fell vulnerable to illness. In the US, thousands of Native peoples died as a result of US policies, even if the killer was technically a germ. Those who died in the reservation system were not the victims of virgin soil epidemics, which had long since passed. Colonial policies often created conditions for pathogens to thrive, even if the Europeans had no real control over the bacterium itself. This complicates Diamond’s argument, as this particular problem is rooted in the Colonial experience, and not from the origins of agriculture, as Guns, Germs, and Steel argues.

Books:

One part of Diamond’s argument revolves around the benefit of literacy. Personally, I find this assertion questionable. The first problem is that there is no way to quantify the advantage of writing. Especially as most conquistadors, including Pizzaro himself, were illiterate. Second, how does this argument account for peoples such as the Mongols, who routinely crushed (not just defeated), literate societies. In the context of the Americas, groups like the Mapuche resisted fiercely, despite being supposedly illiterate. Third, many indigenous groups, illiterate or not, used advanced and complex tactics. Fourth, the Inca were literate, using their quipu as a form of book. This argument is weak, and I think should be dismissed.

Agriculture:

Agriculture is an incredibly important part of Diamond’s argument. Yet, even here he makes some critical errors. First, he greatly underestimates the amount of land in the Americas that was under cultivation. Partly, Diamond is a victim of recent archaeological discoveries, which show that Indigenous societies throughout a much larger portion of the Americas (including Brazil, Columbia, and large parts of North America), farmed. Not only that, they were much more connected than Diamond realises, complicating his east/west, north/south argument. However, a bigger problem is that Diamond does not fully understand the nature of agriculture in the Americas. He seems to think that it was less productive and efficient (largely due to animals) than European agriculture. The opposite is true. European agriculture was typically unproductive and underdeveloped, partly because of animals. Using Spain as an example, many Spanish lords preferred to raise stock, including sheep, because it was more profitable than agriculture, using prime agricultural land for their private wealth. Mesoamericans on the other hand used chinampas and wetland agriculture to produce huge food surpluses. The Aztec Empire may have had double the population of Spain.

The Aztecs were not unique in this. High intensity agriculture was practises all over the Americas, including in Peru. In the American South-East Hernando de Soto claimed to have passed through 12 towns in a single day. Even Brazil was filled with densely populated communities. So why is this important? Two reasons. First, it complicates Diamond’s deterministic narrative. After all, if the Americas were ‘blessed’ with superior crops (such as maize and sweet potatoes), then why didn’t this count for more? Second, because it was the introduction of these crops that fuelled a population boom in Early Modern Europe. Maize in particular became an essential part of the diet in the Mediterranean, while the potato became the staple of northern and central Europe. Without these crops, Europe may not have been able to sustain its colonisation of the rest of the world, although I admit this point is debatable. This is a problem for Diamond’s argument, as it implies that one of the key components of European superiority does not rest with the origins of agriculture, but on events that occurred after 1492.

Native Disunity:

Of course, this is only what Diamond talks about. There is also a huge amount that he barely addresses. The main issue here is Native disunity, a topic Diamond dismisses relatively quickly. Fortunately for me, a lot of research has gone into this question, and so I don’t need to belabour it too much. Suffice to say, native assistance, either passive or active, was present at almost every step of the Spanish Conquest and was also a feature of North American colonisation. The most famous example is of course, Tlaxcala, however other groups were just as important. Another example may be the Mohawk in New England. During King Philip’s War, the aforementioned King Philip attempted to recruit the Mohawk as allies. However, the British managed to flip them to their side, by claiming that Philip intended to attack them. The resulting Mohawk attack was the worst defeat Philip ever suffered, and it probably cost him the war. I could list more examples, but enough has been said of this. Diamond barely even tries to explain this away.

Agency and Opportunity:

And this is the most difficult section to talk about. There is a problem with ascribing events to ‘culture’ as such arguments can easily descend into racism. To avoid this, we perhaps should think of these events in terms of circumstances. So how did individuals make their choices, and how did this affect the outcome of European colonisation? Well, Motecuhzoma may be a good person to start with. Why didn’t he respond more aggressively to the Spanish? The general explanation (he mistook Cortes for a god) has long been discredited. Perhaps we should ask, why would he? Motecuhzoma’s Empire was powerful and prosperous, why would he feel threatened by a motely bunch of adventurers. Furthermore, Cortes presented himself as the ambassador from the King of Spain, and so Motecuhzoma treated him as such. On the other hand, the Spanish had a long history of befriending, and then betraying, friendly native lords, which Motecuhzoma couldn’t have known. This came to a head during the Toxcatl massacre, where several thousand unarmed Aztecs, many of them high ranking officials and officers, were slaughtered. The Spanish also seized Aztec nobles as prisoners, only to execute many of them during their flight from Tenochtitlan. These strategies, developed during the early years of the Spanish Colonial enterprise, played a key role in weakening native societies.

In north America, the settlement at Massachusetts was facilitated by Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag had been weakened by disease and subjugated by the Narraganset (again we see a disease having an effect greater than the casualties it caused). To regain his political and economic strength, he allowed the English settle in his territory, so he could control trade with them, a decision that eventually backfired on the Wampanoag.

The problem with the agency argument, is that it contradicts Diamond’s determinism. In theory, though we may never know for sure, it was possible for Indigenous people to make different choices, that would have changed the outcome of the Conquest. If Atahualpa had taken armed men to Cajamarca, maybe his body guard could have put up greater resistance, enough for the Inca to escape, or even defeat the Conquerors. Maybe if Motecuhzoma had sensed the danger posed by Cortes, he could have intervened before it was too late.

Conclusion:

The ultimate problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel, is that it treats the European domination of the globe as a single, albeit drawn out, event, whose outcome was determined more than 10, 000 years ago. The colonisation of the world was not a single process, but lots of little ones, between which the position of Europe to the rest of the world keeps changing. Europe encountered the Americas before it became modern, and was a very different place after the mid-17th century than when colonisation began. Indeed, it was transformed by its colonisation of the Americas. The ‘Europe’ that met the Aztecs was different from the ‘Europe’ that colonised Africa. As a result, it is hard to argue that there was a set group of factors that explained Europe’s eventual victory. The USA defeated the Plains Indians thanks to its population and technology, but these factors were irrelevant during the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan three and a half centuries earlier. Conversely, native allies and disease were not critical in the defeat of the Sioux or Comanche, while they were all decisive against the Aztecs.

To expand on these points, we are used to the narrative of history pointing to European supremacy, yet there were many times when Indigenous people defeated Europeans, and I don’t just mean in the odd battle, here or there. I’ve already mentioned the Mapuche and how they were never conquered by the Spanish. Well here is an example where Guns, Germs, and Steel did not win. It wasn’t until the 1880s that modern Chile came to dominate Mapuche territory, long after the virgin soil epidemics had ended and the population was fully familiar with European weaponry. A similar set of events played out in Northern Mexico during the Chichimeca War. The nomadic peoples of Northern Mexico defeated the Spanish in a 60 year war and had to be culturally absorbed. Even then, nomadic peoples like the Comanche and Apache plagued New Spain for centuries. This presents an important irony in Guns, Germs, and Steel. The people closest to the Spanish (in terms of technology and society) were ‘easier,’ to defeat than nomadic people who were much further ‘behind,’ them. Diamond’s argument doesn’t really account for this, as it implies that a ‘break in the chain,’ could have changed the outcome, contradicting its essential determinism.

None of this means that Diamond’s points are completely wrong. Disease certainly weakened native societies. Weapons gave Conquistadors some important victories. However, the impact of these factors varied between conflict and over time, and Diamond ignores other critical factors that help explain Europe’s rise.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Merry Christmas · 2021-12-26T17:11:01.083Z · LW · GW

Merry Christmas, and thank you for all the posts you write!

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on 2021 AI Alignment Literature Review and Charity Comparison · 2021-12-24T12:27:20.121Z · LW · GW

I would be happy to see you write a top-level post about this paper. :)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Occupational Infohazards · 2021-12-23T17:28:03.071Z · LW · GW

I think that makes sense but on the other hand both vote counts being directly comparable seems good

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on GPT-3: a disappointing paper · 2021-12-23T16:29:23.426Z · LW · GW

I'm not sure how much lasting value this post has. My recent post here covers the same ground more carefully.

I'm not sure if this is relevant, but this post received some very critical comments, leading me to seriously question the value of continuing to write posts like this on LW. See here for a discussion about this with a reader of my blog. I did continue to write posts like this, and they have been well received, even when they reiterated my arguments here. I am curious what explains this difference, and have no good hypotheses.

If you feel like "larger language models may disappoint you" was one of the posts that reiterated your arguments here, they seem to be saying pretty different things to me? It feels like this article is fundamentally focused on talking about the GPT-3 paper whereas your later post is focused on talking about GPT-3 itself.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Parenting: "Try harder next time" is bad advice for kids too · 2021-12-20T18:49:47.575Z · LW · GW

Relevant: sarahconstantin's Errors, Bugs, and the End of Stupidity

A person taking a test or playing a piece of music is executing a program, a deterministic procedure.  If your program has a bug, then you'll get a whole class of problems wrong, consistently. [...] A kid who gets arithmetic questions wrong usually isn't getting them wrong at random; there's something missing in their understanding, like not getting the difference between multiplication and addition.  Working generically "harder" doesn't fix bugs (though fixing bugs does require work). 

Once you start to think of mistakes as deterministic rather than random, as caused by "bugs" (incorrect understanding or incorrect procedures) rather than random inaccuracy, a curious thing happens.

You stop thinking of people as "stupid."

Tags like "stupid," "bad at ____", "sloppy," and so on, are ways of saying "You're performing badly and I don't know why."  Once you move it to "you're performing badly because you have the wrong fingerings," or "you're performing badly because you don't understand what a limit is," it's no longer a vague personal failing but a causal necessity.  Anyone who never understood limits will flunk calculus.  It's not you, it's the bug.

This also applies to "lazy."  Lazy just means "you're not meeting your obligations and I don't know why."  If it turns out that you've been missing appointments because you don't keep a calendar, then you're not intrinsically "lazy," you were just executing the wrong procedure.  And suddenly you stop wanting to call the person "lazy" when it makes more sense to say they need organizational tools.

"Lazy" and "stupid" and "bad at ____" are terms about the map, not the territory.  Once you understand what causes mistakes, those terms are far less informative than actually describing what's happening. 

These days, learning disabilities are far more highly diagnosed than they used to be. And sometimes I hear the complaint about rich parents, "Suddenly if your kid's getting B's, you have to believe it's a learning disability.  Nobody can accept that their kid is just plain mediocre.  Are there no stupid people left?"  And maybe there's something to the notion that the kid who used to be just "stupid" or "not a great student" is now often labeled "learning disabled." But I want to complicate that a little bit.

Thing is, I've worked with learning disabled kids.  There were kids who had trouble reading, kids who had trouble with math, kids with poor fine motor skills, ADD and autistic kids, you name it.  And these were mostly pretty mild disabilities.  These were the kids who, in decades past, might just have been C students, but whose anxious modern-day parents were sending them to special programs for the learning disabled. 

But what we did with them was nothing especially mysterious or medical.  We just focused, carefully and non-judgmentally, on improving their areas of weakness.  The dyslexics got reading practice.  The math-disabled got worksheets and blocks to count.  Hyperactive kids were taught to ask themselves "How's my motor running today?" and be mindful of their own energy levels and behavior.  The only difference between us and a "regular" school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that.

And I have to wonder: is that "special education" or is it just education? [...]

As a matter of self-improvement, I think it can make sense not to think in terms of "getting better" ("better at piano", "better at math," "better at organizing my time").  How are you going to get better until you figure out what's wrong with what you're already doing?  It's really more an exploratory process -- where is the bug, and what can be done to dislodge it?  Dislodging bugs doesn't look like competition, and sometimes it doesn't even look like work.  Mr. Cohn was gentle and playful -- he wasn't trying to get me to "work harder," but to relax enough to change the mistaken patterns I'd drilled into myself. 

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Book summary: Unlocking the Emotional Brain · 2021-12-16T18:04:33.837Z · LW · GW

Good question, I guess if you look at the transcripts it also looks like at least in some cases two beliefs are actually alternating rather than being literally simultaneous? Though there seem to be some actually simultaneous cases as well.

In general I'd say it probably doesn't matter that much, and that the main fact is to have them both in your general "field of awareness". Even if you are not literally thinking about both at the same time, you still have some sort of awareness of them both being true and their discrepancy "linking up" in some sense. Think of when you say something that you believe, and someone points out a problem in what you said, and you realize that they're right and you go "oh". It's basically that. 

I think that if you need to actually keep consciously alternating them with each other and it doesn't feel like there's any "oh", then there's something else going wrong. Either you haven't managed to tap into the core of both schemas and actually experienced their beliefs as true, or one of the schemas is about something else than you think. 

E.g. you might have a schema saying you'll always fail at everything, and you are trying to disconfirm it using examples of times when you have been successful. But it could be that the underlying belief in the failure schema isn't actually "I will always fail at everything"; it might instead be something like "I must never succeed because successful people get hurt by jealous people". In that case, presenting evidence about having had successes does not actually disconfirm the core belief in the failure schema.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Biology-Inspired AGI Timelines: The Trick That Never Works · 2021-12-05T11:34:06.542Z · LW · GW

I had a pretty strong negative reaction to it. I got the feeling that the post derives much of its rhetorical force from setting up an intentionally stupid character who can be condescended to, and that this is used to sneak in a conclusion that would seem much weaker without that device.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on larger language models may disappoint you [or, an eternally unfinished draft] · 2021-12-03T17:18:17.351Z · LW · GW

Here's a 1984 paper that uses the term "one-shot", apparently in the same sense as today.

A 1987 paper mentions that 

Learning can be achieved by a one-shot learning process (in which each prototype is presented only once) as follows

and then after some math notes that

Several authors [2] have proposed the latter relation for one-shot learning, taking into account all second-order interactions, and have investigated the storage capacity, size of the basins of attraction, etc., for random uncorrelated patterns. 

suggesting that there was already moderately active discussion of the term in the eighties.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on The 2020 Review · 2021-12-02T19:00:17.362Z · LW · GW

It's weird looking at my list of strong upvotes, given that a lot of them are posts I have no memory of. "I guess I really liked this post since I strong-upvoted it, also I guess it was forgettable since if you'd told me I'd never seen it, I might have believed you."

(Possibly this says more about my memory than about the posts.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century · 2021-12-01T20:07:30.042Z · LW · GW

Yeah, this sounds much more like the kind of thing that I'd expect to be the cause, as opposed to mutual theft being somehow a beneficial/adaptive response to poverty.

One of the consequences of being in stressful circumstances is that it makes you less open to trying out new things - understandably, given that if resources are sparse, it makes sense for the brain to stick to tried and true behaviors for extracting those resources rather than risk trying a novel behavior that might extract nothing. (And in a village where you've grown up treating all social interactions as more or less adversarial, someone suggesting something new is probably just trying to trick you somehow.) So once a culture hits this kind of a situation, it may become stuck there and be incapable of evolving anything better unless the material situation gets somehow drastically better.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Frame Control · 2021-11-30T11:33:17.312Z · LW · GW

I suspect that you only get a cult-like group/organization if the leader uses frame control

I think it can happen even without the leader doing it, if the followers already have a cult-like frame they want to fit the leader in.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century · 2021-11-29T20:42:22.451Z · LW · GW

It sounds like you're thinking about "adaptivity" in terms of what's good for the group, not the individual.

The phrase "good for the group, not the individual" feels ambiguous to me; I usually interpret it to mean something that hurts some individuals while improving the group's chances to survive (e.g. norms that make some individuals sacrifice themselves to make the rest of the group better off). That at least wasn't what I meant; by "more adaptive" I meant something like an approximate Pareto improvement (in the long term) for the people adopting it. 

E.g. if everyone - including spouses! - is stealing from each other all the time, then it seems hard to believe that it's advantageous for people to marry while it not being advantageous to commit to a no-theft policy at least when dealing with your spouse. Even if the village was largely zero-sum, it still seems like being able to reliably cooperate with one person would give you an advantage in trying to steal things from everyone else. Or if things are so zero-sum that it's not even beneficial to cooperate with your spouse, why is there still an institution of marriage?

the fact that there was space to plant more apple trees indicates that the world was not perfectly zero sum; there were nonzero gains to be had from tree-planting

I would think that the fact that people are socially interacting in a village in the first place implies that the world is not perfectly zero-sum and that there are gains to be had from cooperation. If that wasn't the case, I think the optimal strategy would be for one family to try to murder or enslave everyone else?

the culture can be a Nash equilibrium without being particularly good at the group level

I read this as indicating disagreement with my comment, but isn't it expressing the same thought as the dictatorless dystopia example and my remark that no rule requires cultures to hit particularly good local optimums?

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Frame Control · 2021-11-29T12:56:09.682Z · LW · GW

I found your comment surprising so I re-read blueiris's comment and then realized that they actually had a reasonable point in their second paragraph. I think I basically only read the first paragraph, which read (and still reads) to me as an unwarranted ad hominem that has nothing to do with the content of the post, and then decided the second paragraph wasn't worth reading and downvoted without bothering to read the whole thing.

I undid my downvote, but still feel like the first paragraph is bad enough that I don't want to upvote either.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century · 2021-11-29T10:54:28.030Z · LW · GW

There's something to what you say, but at the same time, it sounds like you're suggesting that the morals of the peasants in question were well-adapted to their situation. But it seems hard to imagine that e.g. frequently stealing from each other, or jealous neighbors uprooting the trees of their slightly more well-off neighbors, would have been particularly adaptive in the long run - it's setting up for the community to stay poor and miserable indefinitely, even if it occasionally benefits individuals. 

Of course there's a sense in which the situation can be described as "adaptive" in that once things have declined to this point, any single person's incentive may be to continue to steal from and abuse others, so adopting that strategy is the best they can do - which is adaptive in the sense that Bostrom's dictatorless dystopia is adaptive.

Bostrom makes an offhanded reference of the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

I would be quite surprised if it turned out that the culture and morality adopted by these peasants really was the best possible, or even a reasonably good culture and morality to have in response to extreme poverty. At the same time, I would not be very surprised to find out that it was regardless a relatively common local optimum to hit upon, because there's no rule saying that cultures would need to hit upon particularly good local optimums.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Frame Control · 2021-11-28T11:14:45.717Z · LW · GW

Here's the post I was thinking of.

Sometimes I sort of lie without realising it, like when I suddenly change to mirror someone, as mentioned in a recent post:

I can limit mirroring to some degree, however, as always, my reality twists to make sense in the moment […]. My favourite colour is red but when you tell me yours is blue, I suddenly remember that gorgeous sky-blue Porsche I had and, well, wasn’t it always my favourite car?

I don’t feel like I’m lying at all when I tell you about the grandiose car and how I love blue. It’s maybe a slight manipulation, however, it feels sincere at the time. This is what happens when you live in the present and have fuck all impulse control. It’s only now I’m considering the accumulative effects of these sorts of lies.

One of my exes was a huge U2 fan. I’m not that bothered about U2: I prefer the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, the second she told me she liked U2, I could suddenly remember liking them. Except rather than appreciating her taste from afar, I blurted out that I’d seen U2 live. Total bullshit.

Immediately I was worried she was going to ask where or when, however, she didn’t and so I got away with it. These sorts of lies require two people: a mirror like me and a receiver. If a lie goes out and you believe it, affirmation comes back in. You’re happy that I love Bono and blue and so I feel better. Once that happens, I either believe it (if it’s really small) or I sort of believe it. It’s assimilated into my reality. I know I’ve never seen U2 live and yet I sort of believe I have. I’ve even repeated that to other people. You’ve affirmed the lie and so that makes it quasi-real.

When the relationship grows and the reality becomes more unstable, the lies get bigger. Or, there are other rifts in the reality. For example, some of what your husband says might be contradictory, however, he may believe what he is saying. I once dated two women at the same time and told each of them I loved them more than the other one. This is because who I loved more depended on who was in front of me at the time.

Your husband is likely doing the kid thing of lying to get out of those other lies he told. When lies get that big, I am 100% aware of them, however, I will keep digging a hole if there’s a chance I can “repair” the damage, restore my reputation and get my own way.

Another post from the same guy:

I think, for me, most of the injuries I cause to others are the side-effects of trying to keep my ludicrous version of reality ticking along. This means keeping people on side (trauma bonded) so my needs get met (and there are a lot of those). I have beliefs about myself that I need constantly affirmed so my false self can do its job and keep me feeling alive. For example, I’m super special and the best at everything I do.

Since this is objectively not the case, reality has to change. This is unfortunate to anyone who is nearby at the time.

The other day my friend beat me at chess, fair and square. This cannot happen. I am perfect, I am brilliant at chess, I never lose. If I lose, that makes me vulnerable. The false self wobbles and falls down. So at some point over the next few days I will probably bat my eyelashes and casually drop into conversation that I let her win because she seemed to be having a bad day and I wanted to cheer her up. The result:

  • I am unbeatable at chess again
  • I am a good guy who cheers people up
  • She isn’t as good as me
  • I don’t have bad days, she does.

She is currently in the very, very early stages of being devalued. That’s when this kind of gaslighting usually begins and I find it impossible to stop. I may have done this during idealisation as well if I felt especially injured. That is less likely to happen then, however, as my brain is dripping with dopamine.

I might pay her a compliment shortly after I take her chess win away, like telling her it was still a really good game and I miss seeing her beautiful smile. I might mean it, I might not. This is to ensure I keep her on side. It’s conditioning and I never had to learn to do it, I just do it.

For her, the side effect of this repeating over and over is that she will doubt both her gaming abilities and her mental health. I don’t set out to do this, however, I’m 100% aware that this results. Another long-term side effect for her is that this kind of abuse is like crack, making it easy for me to manipulate her.

And a third one:

My narcissistic boyfriend loves to rewrite history and make up things that didn’t happen, especially when it’s about the abuse he inflicts. Is this a common narcissistic trait?

Rewriting history is very common. As others have said, it’s part of the gaslighting arsenal. It involves something called magical thinking.

Magical thinking is any bollocks that defies logic and makes my perception of reality correct. My youngest daughter says there’s a unicorn in her wardrobe that threw her socks on the floor. She’ll believe it for a while: she wants it to be true so she can dodge getting in trouble for her crimes of the sock. This is adorable because she’s 3.

Mentally, I’m about the same age. Magical thinking is how I can support my perfect false self and avoid shame. Since nobody is perfect, especially not a hideous asshat like me, reality has to warp and out come the unicorns.

The same goes with your boyfriend: how can he be wrong? How can he be an abuser if he’s perfect? If you remind him he has abused you, he will experience a narcissistic injury. That pain can’t stay in so it has to go somewhere, probably on to you, so there will sometimes be projection and blame-shifting as well as gaslighting.

Smaller, more believable edits to reality are the most effective. So slamming you into the wall and screaming in your face becomes, “It was a reasonable reaction! I raised my voice SLIGHTLY because you put me in a corner!”

My mother can’t be bothered with small and believable edits, preferring to opt for, “That never happened”.

I’ve written more about this kind of gaslighting here: Matthias Kroegerson's answer to Why do narcissists blow hot and cold?

Your boyfriend probably doesn’t know he’s doing this, however, it doesn’t matter; I know I do this and still do it. It’s not easy to explain. A little voice inside knows I’m full of hot air. However, a bigger part completely believes what I’m saying. It’s like when you get to the pub at 7pm and say, “I’ll just have one”. Then at 3am the next morning your friends are trying to carry you into your house while you’re slurring, “Wha…? Haaa… kebab?”

The best way to deal with this, other than to avoid his kind, is to keep records. My ex, who I’m co-parenting with, will not have an important conversation with me in person or on the phone without recording it. It’s how you can really catch us out.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Frame Control · 2021-11-28T09:41:05.280Z · LW · GW

Yes. When I think of the person who most strongly seemed to do something like frame control to me, it was exactly their extreme stuckness in a particular frame that made it so powerful. They way it felt like was, if anything happened or was said that might threaten the validity of their frame, the meaning of what had been said (or possibly even the literal words themselves) would get twisted around until it became compatible with the desired frame.

Like there were moments when I said something, and they immediately claimed I had said something else, and I could tell their claim to be false because we were having a conversation in text form and I could see my own previous words right above their last message. But at times when our conversation was not in text form and I didn't always remember what exactly had been said, the strength of their conviction would often make me doubt myself and wonder whether I really had told them some nasty thing they were claiming that I had said. (It did not help matters that my memory is often poor so there were occasions when they did genuinely point out something that I had misremembered.)

There's something like, if you and I disagree, then at least one of us is wrong. And if I am so convinced in my position that literally nothing you say can shift my view, then my absolute certainty may make you doubt your own, especially if my behavior seems to you so extreme that at least one of us has to be somehow crazy. In that situation, if you have the slightest tendency towards doubting yourself, it's likely to get triggered.

I think Aella has previously mentioned that her father has narcissistic personality disorder, and one feature of narcissism is an inability to entertain the fact that you might be the one at fault. I recall once reading a post by a self-described narcissist, talking about the experience of his reality instantly rewriting itself to make the socially desirable thing seem utterly true to him when useful. E.g. he's talking to someone he wants to make a good impression on, and suddenly it just becomes true to him that the other person's favorite artist is also his favorite artist. It's not that he is choosing to consciously manipulate, but his brain is automatically getting him stuck in whatever frame is the most convenient for manipulation.

All of which relates to the point about intent not mattering. If you interrogate the motives of someone who is compulsively stuck in their frame, to the point of their mind twisting all incoming sense data or all of their memories about themselves to match that frame, then there's often no evil intent to be found. Just a very strong frame where they are right and you are wrong, and where literally everything in the world supports that conclusion, in their mind. (of course, I am describing the most extreme case, and less extreme frame controllers can have stuck frames that are still not quite that stuck)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Shoulder Advisors 101 · 2021-11-22T11:38:55.828Z · LW · GW

True, though much of that fancy stuff is related to things that GPT doesn't need to do, e.g. it doesn't have any of the learning components because it comes pre-trained and doesn't do any on-line training, and it's also just one predictive engine rather than being embedded in a larger system that needs to decide when to apply that predictive engine and when to apply something else.

I do agree that if you look at just any given "shoulder advisor module" itself, and not any of the components concerned with updating it or deciding when it should run, it does seem quite similar to something like GPT.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Sasha Chapin on bad social norms in rationality/EA · 2021-11-18T22:39:59.671Z · LW · GW

There's certainly been discussion of people in EA feeling a moral obligation to spend all their time and money on making a positive impact. I've personally felt it and know several others who have, and e.g. these [1 2] articles discuss it, to name just a few examples.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours reading EA material, and have literally never come across an institutional publication with a phrase of the variety:

And Sasha never claims that you would! In fact he explicitly notes that you won't:

Generally, toxic social norms don’t develop intentionally, nobody wants them to happen, they’re not written down, and nobody enforces them explicitly.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Sasha Chapin on bad social norms in rationality/EA · 2021-11-18T19:45:38.833Z · LW · GW

From another country; to be clear, when I told them this they were genuinely surprised and confused by me feeling that way.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Sasha Chapin on bad social norms in rationality/EA · 2021-11-17T14:45:03.407Z · LW · GW

It seems like any cultural prospiracy to increase standards to exceptional levels, which I see as a good thing, would be quickly branded as 'toxic' by this outlook.

I read it not as saying that having high standards would be bad by itself, but that the toxicity is about a specific dynamic where the standards become interpreted as disallowing even things that have nothing to do with the standards themselves. E.g. nothing about having high standards for rationality requires one to look down on art.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Sasha Chapin on bad social norms in rationality/EA · 2021-11-17T14:34:25.904Z · LW · GW

To the extend that this share is true, for what subset of the rationality community suffers from it?

I recall having had this feeling, in particular I once mentioned to another member of the community that I was thinking about working on a fiction-writing project but I also felt bad to admit it, because I was afraid he'd look down on me for spending time on something so frivolous. (This was quite a while ago, as in 2014 or something like that.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Investigating Fabrication · 2021-11-12T11:49:37.009Z · LW · GW

Top surgery is scheduled? Ugh, I don’t like it. 

Maybe I could cancel top surgery? No, that doesn’t work, because then I’d keep having boobs. 

How about I go through with top surgery then? No, that’s no good either, because then I’d have to experience surgery and recovery. 

Well, let’s see… Maybe… Maybe I could cancel top surgery? 

*sigh* Still no, for the same reasons as last time. [...]

What if [good parts of first option, and good parts of second option], but not [bad parts of either option]?

This seems quite similar to my model of how craving (in the Buddhist sense) works and how it causes suffering, in that craving looks like it creates constraints for what features reality should contain, and the mind then tries to use its existing knowledge in order to come up with a plan of action that fulfills all the constraints - even if that turns out to be impossible. I have a more detailed writeup here, which includes a similar "thrashing around" example.

In a sense, "what if [good parts of first option, and good parts of second option], but not [bad parts of either option]" is a good question to ask, since it seems similar in spirit to what one is trying to do when goal factoring: start from the assumption that such an option does exist, and then carry out a search for achieving it. Of course, the "assume that such an option does exist" is a bad idea in cases where no such option does exist.

Still, in some situations it can make sense to just assign very high prior probability on the option existing, even if all the evidence would seem to go against this possibility. The most obvious scenario is one where all the non-fabricated options involve dying. If giving up means death, then in the worst case pursuing a policy of "I am going to assume there's a way out and keep looking for it until I find one" just means that you'll die (which would have been the case anyway), but in the best case it lets you find that one very-low probability chance of making it out alive. 

In Shut up and do the impossible!, Eliezer also argues for pursuing things like AI alignment even when it seems impossible.

That logic would seem to help explain why brains sometimes put a probability on an option existing that is proportional to how important it is for us to achieve that goal (or put in more Buddhist terms, proportional to how much craving there is). If you crave something enough, the strength of that craving will make you believe that the option for getting the thing exists, so as to motivate you to keep looking at it. But that also means that after your brain has fabricated the option, you might stop looking. Once you assign a high enough prior probability to having the option, you feel like you already have it - and if someone points out that you don't, that may feel like them taking it away from you, causing a need to lash back at them.

From my earlier writeup:

Recall that under the [predictive processing] framework, goals happen because a part of the brain assumes that they will happen, after which it changes reality to make that belief true. So focusing really hard on a craving for X makes it feel like X will become true, because the craving is literally rewriting an aspect of my subjective reality to make me think that X will become true.

When I focus hard on the craving, I am temporarily guiding my attention away from the parts of my mind which are pointing out the obstacles in the way of X coming true. That is, those parts have less of a chance to incorporate their constraints into the plan that my brain is trying to develop. This momentarily reduces the motion away from this plan, making it seem more plausible that the desired outcome will in fact become real.

Conversely, letting go of this craving, may feel like it is literally making the undesired outcome more real, rather than like I am coming more to terms with reality. This is most obvious in cases where one has a craving for an outcome that is impossible for certain, such as in the case of grieving about a friend’s death. Even after it is certain that someone is dead, there may still be persistent thoughts of if only I had done X, with an implicit additional flavor of if I just want to have done X really hard, things will change, and I can’t stop focusing on this possibility because my friend needs to be alive.

In this form, craving may lead to all kinds of rationalization and biased reasoning: a part of your mind is literally making you believe that X is true, because it wants you to find a strategy where X is true. This hallucinated belief may constrain all of your plans and models about the world in the same sense as getting direct sensory evidence about X being true would constrain your brain’s models. For example, if I have a very strong urge to believe that someone is interested in me, then this may cause me to interpret any of his words and expressions in a way compatible with this belief, regardless of how implausible and far-spread of a distortion this requires.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on What are fiction stories related to AI alignment? · 2021-10-29T11:47:34.360Z · LW · GW

Greg Egan's Crystal Nights is about an attempt to align an AI society.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on What are fiction stories related to AI alignment? · 2021-10-29T11:40:03.047Z · LW · GW

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is about what happens when a partially aligned AI takes over the world before its creators expect that.

Note that the associated warning is very much warranted:

This online novel contains strong language and extreme depictions of acts of sex and violence. Readers who are sensitive to such things should exercise discretion.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Mental health benefits and downsides of psychedelic use in ACX readers: survey results · 2021-10-27T10:56:53.511Z · LW · GW

It also depends on how one defines "religious". A commonly used definition, which seems to be same as the one you're using, is something like "believes in the objective existence of supernatural entities". But while that may be a reasonable description for many of the Abrahamic religions in particular, it's not a universal part of all religions, nor does it even accurately describe the psychology of many followers of those religions (even if it does describe the psychology of some).

For instance, someone might get a feeling of all experience being sacred and beautiful in some sense, in a way that is not strictly incompatible with traditional atheism (as it implies no difference in factual beliefs, at least not beliefs with regard to what actually exists or not), but nonetheless feels so different to them than what they had previously associated with atheism that it feels more right to identify as being spiritual from that moment on.

Or psychedelics might unlock intuitive access to phenomena which have traditionally been associated with religion, e.g. experiences of energies or seeing auras, that can be non-supernaturally interpreted as a native way  for the brain to represent subconscious judgments of the emotional states of self and others. Those kinds of things are currently mostly discussed in the context of religion/spiritual practices, in which case one might describe themselves as "becoming religious" if they then start practicing systems for making use of that information that have been developed in the context of specific religions - which again doesn't require belief in anything supernatural.

Or if one starts more strongly intuitively picking up on other people's emotional states, perceiving states and moods most strongly associated with people e.g. causing each other to get upset in certain predictable and repeatable patterns (e.g. the same arguments playing out over and over between the same people) can cause one to perceive those people as being "possessed by demons", "demons" the being particular patterns of noise / maladaptive emotional schemas that drive such behavior. And so on.

It's certainly true that simply having an experience while on psychedelics doesn't prove anything; however if being on psychedelics gives you access to a recurring experience that you can afterwards try to empirically test and see whether its predictions are valid, that may be a different matter.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Mental health benefits and downsides of psychedelic use in ACX readers: survey results · 2021-10-27T06:02:38.594Z · LW · GW

This study at least didn't ask about the length of the psychotic episode, so it seems compatible with the users having had short-term psychotic episodes that didn't cause long-term damage.

Speculatively, a short-term psychosis could even be part of what causes long-term mental health benefits, if e.g. psychedelics do it via a relaxing of priors and the psychotic episode is the moment when they are the most relaxed before stabilizing again, in line with the neural annealing analogy:

The hypothesized flattening of the brain’s (variational free) energy landscape under psychedelics can be seen as analogous to the phenomenon of simulated annealing in computer science—which itself is analogous to annealing in metallurgy, whereby a system is heated (i.e., instantiated by increased neural excitability), such that it attains a state of heightened plasticity, in which the discovery of new energy minima (relatively stable places/trajectories for the system to visit/reside in for a period of time) is accelerated (Wang and Smith, 1998). Subsequently, as the drug is metabolized and the system cools, its dynamics begin to stabilize—and attractor basins begin to steepen again (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). This process may result in the emergence of a new energy landscape with revised properties.

A relevant-seeming comparison is that there are meditation traditions that basically hold that you are expected to go through what are something like psychotic episodes before you get better, on the theory that reconfiguring your brain to more clearly see reality will break some existing setups and require time to find a new workable configuration.

Alternatively, the psychotic episodes themselves may be part of what helps convey useful information to your brain: they are a very visceral indication of the fact that your experience is internally constructed. If something totally crazy may seem like an absolute truth during the trip/meditation experience, then that helps highlight the fact that even things that feel like absolute truths to you can be false. "Getting a visceral understanding of how your mind creates your subjective reality" is sometimes understood to be one of the goals of enlightenment, and it can also make it easier to discard incorrect emotional schemas that some part of your mind has so far taken as absolute ttruths and which have caused what we would ordinarily call mental health problems.

At the same time this also risks some craziness if you don't already have good epistemology. One with the right background may end up thinking "okay so that was a really visceral indication of my mind being generated by a piece of fallible software, I'll be much less sure about all of my beliefs now and try extra hard to test them against reality". But someone else could interpret exactly the same experiences to imply "well apparently everything I took to be certain is bunk, that includes all that previous stuff about science that I once thought to be true, now I know that my mind creates reality so this has to mean that there's no objective reality and I can make anything true just by believing in it!".

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-26T20:07:00.966Z · LW · GW

I read the comment you're responding to as suggesting something like "your impression of Unreal's internal state was so different from her own experience of her internal state that she's very confused".

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Is GPT-3 already sample-efficient? · 2021-10-26T13:37:18.774Z · LW · GW

Thanks!

LW is sponsored by CFAR so this is kind of correct if you squint a bit

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Is GPT-3 already sample-efficient? · 2021-10-25T20:17:55.798Z · LW · GW

What did it say about me? :D I think I tried asking the AI Dungeon version about me at some point but apparently the adventure game finetuning had made that knowledge inaccessible. 

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on Shoulder Advisors 101 · 2021-10-21T16:49:16.015Z · LW · GW

So uhh

I've been doing a bit of coaching for people recently

And then when I was thinking that I'm not going to do [THING] yet, I'm going to wait until I'm in a better position to do so, suddenly I had the experience of a shoulder advisor materializing that was me in coach mode being like "okay so do you have some actual criteria for what counts as being in a good enough position"

That was a very peculiar experience

(probably I'd have had that thought anyway but reading this post primed me to have it be accompanied by a mental image of myself standing on my own shoulder)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T20:37:22.070Z · LW · GW

I would posit that there's an enormous filter in place before Kaj encounters these twelve people and they ask him to facilitate them in something-like-IFS.

That's certainly true. 

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T19:45:27.431Z · LW · GW

a) a supermajority of people have the precursors for the just-sitting-there-with-the-therapist moment, or something substantively similar, such that taking the drug allows them to reshuffle all the pieces and make an actual breakthrough

I think that there are structures in the human mind that tend to generate various massive blind spots by default (some of them varying between people, some of them as close to universal as anything in human minds ever is), so I would consider the "a supermajority of people have the precursors for the just-sitting-there-with-the-therapist moment, or something substantively similar" hypothesis completely plausible even if nobody had ever done any drugs and we didn't have any evidence suggesting that drugs might trigger any particular insights.

A weak datapoint would be that out of the about ~twelve people I've facilitated something-like-IFS to, at least five have reported it being a significantly meaningful experience based on just a few sessions (in some cases just one), even if not the most meaningful in their life. And I'm not even among the most experienced or trained IFS facilitators in the world.

Also some of people's trip reports do sound like the kind of thing that you might get from deep enough experiential therapy (IFS and the like; thinking of personal psychological insights more than the 'contact with God' stuff).

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T19:22:27.709Z · LW · GW

Not necessarily since a willingness to violate drug laws is likely a negative signal about someone.

I would think that this'd depend on what a reasonable person looking at the existing research about the drugs in question would conclude about their effect.

In the specific case of psychedelics, I think a reasonable conclusion based on the existing research would be that they do involve some risks, but can be positive value in expectation if used responsibly.

If that's a reasonable conclusion to draw, then I wouldn't think that a person drawing that conclusion and using psychedelics as a result would be a negative signal about the person.

(In another comment, you mention the destructive effect that drugs have had on Mexico as a reason to avoid them. I'm not very familiar with the situation there, but Wikipedia tells me that the drugs traded by the Mexican drug cartels include cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Notably missing from the list are psychedelics such as psilocybin or LSD.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T18:52:34.934Z · LW · GW

I agree that it's valuable to be aware of the life-denying aspects of the tradition, since those mindsets do affect some teachings of it and it's good to be able to notice them and filter them out rather than accidentally absorbing them.

I do however object to characterizing "Buddhism proper" anti-life, as it implies that any proper attempt to delve into or practice Buddhism will eventually just lead you into deathism.

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T18:47:27.326Z · LW · GW

If by 'dukkha' early Buddhists just meant 'not totally satisfactory', then why did they choose that word (apparently mainly used for physical pain...?) rather than some clearer term? 

Note that Wikipedia gives the word's etymology as being something that actually does seem  pretty analogous to 'not totally satisfactory';

The word is commonly explained as a derivation from Aryan terminology for an axle hole, referring to an axle hole which is not in the center and leads to a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. According to Winthrop Sargeant,

The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning "sky," "ether," or "space," was originally the word for "hole," particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan's vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, "having a good axle hole," while duhkha meant "having a poor axle hole," leading to discomfort.[12]

Joseph Goldstein, American vipassana teacher and writer, explains the etymology as follows:

The word dukkha is made up of the prefix du and the root kha. Du means "bad" or "difficult". Kha means "empty". "Empty", here, refers to several things—some specific, others more general. One of the specific meanings refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. If the axle fits badly into the center hole, we get a very bumpy ride. This is a good analogy for our ride through saṃsāra.

As I heard one meditation teacher put it, the modern analogy to this would be if you had one of those shopping carts where one of the wheels is stuck and doesn't quite go the way you'd like it - doesn't exactly kill you or cause you enormous suffering, but it's not a totally satisfactory shopping cart experience, either.

(Leigh Brasington also has a fun take.)

Comment by Kaj_Sotala on My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage) · 2021-10-20T18:39:49.527Z · LW · GW

There's that, but I think it would also be misleading to say that (all) Buddhists consider desire/wanting to be bad! (Though to be clear, it does seem like some of them do.)

I liked this article's take on the issue.

I also sometimes wonder whether it would help to distinguish more cleanly and explicitly between caring and clinging as different dimensions of experience. I, at least, have found it clarifying (who knows if it’s exegetically accurate) to think of the Buddha as centrally advocating that you let go of clinging, as understood above; and of many contemporary Buddhist practices and ideas as oriented towards this goal. That is, the aim is not, centrally, to care less about anything (though sometimes that’s appropriate too). Rather, the aim (or at least, one aim) is to care differently — without a certain kind of internal, experiential contraction. To untie a certain kind of knot; to let go of a certain type of denial/resistance towards what is or could be; and in doing so, to step more fully into the real world, and into a kind of sanity.